News Feature

Deer Isle
Originally published in Compass, May 15, 2014
Residents call for Route 15 fix—in large numbers
Rebuild (so far) planned from Orland to Blue Hill

Local coastal Maine officials hold Route 15 forum

Panel members (from left) Blue Hill Fire Chief Denny Robertson; Blue Hill Road Commissioner Bill Cousins; former state senator Dennis Damon; and Kate Dufour, a transportation specialist with the Maine Municipal Association met with the public in Blue Hill on May 3, 2014.

Photo by Rich Hewitt Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Rich Hewitt

More than 100 area residents turned out Saturday, May 10, for the Fix Route 15 Forum, and many of them added their voices to the call for state action to improve conditions on Route 15 in the Blue Hill Peninsula-Deer Isle region.

The grassroots forum, kick-started by local town officials, highlighted the “disastrous” state of the road in that area. Speaker upon speaker outlined a variety of consequences that have befallen motorists who drive that section of road in Hancock County, including slowed emergency response, damaged vehicles, shattered nerves and a battered economy.

An eight-member panel, including moderator Jill Goldthwait, a former state senator, heard the testimony, and all or some panel members may work with the towns to craft a plan of action based on the information gathered on Saturday. That panel included Blue Hill Fire Chief Denny Robertson; Blue Hill Road Commissioner Bill Cousins; former State Senator Dennis Damon; Kate Dufour, a transportation specialist with the Maine Municipal Association; Penobscot Selectman Paul Bowen; Stephen Fay, managing editor of The Ellsworth American; and John Melrose, a senior consultant with Eaton Peabody who serves as a senior policy advisor for the Maine Better Transportation Association.

The Maine Department of Transportation sent a delegation to the forum and provided some information on how road maintenance and construction projects are prioritized. They also heard the concerns from residents and town officials, and just hearing those testimonies may have had an impact.

“They [DOT officials] didn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know, but I think they heard something that might be useful to us in this whole process,” said Blue Hill Selectman Jim Schatz, who, with Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris, spearheaded the organization of the forum. “I think they got a different perspective on the importance of a road, a single road on and off the peninsula, and how that might elevate the road to a different priority.”

How the state prioritizes the roadways

State priority roads was just one of the topics touched on by Melrose, who kicked off the forum, providing a background of facts and figures about roads and their funding in the state and, specifically in Hancock County. The MDOT ranks roads on a scale of Priority 1 to 6. The Priority 1 and 2 roads are the larger, more heavily traveled roads such as the Maine Turnpike and, in Hancock County, routes 1 and 3.

“The 1 and 2 roads are in significantly better shape that the 3-through-5 roads,” Melrose said.

Route 15 is a Priority 3 road. The smaller state roads are Priority 4 and 5, while local roads are classified as a Priority 6.

The department also grades roads on a simple A-F ranking system, based on condition, safety and service. Melrose said Hancock County has a disproportionally high share of the roads that are ranked D and F. The county has 7.15 percent of all Priority 3 roads in the state, but it has about 15.42 percent of all roads rated F in the state.

“You’re about double what the rest of the state experiences,” he said.

How roads are paid for

It should come as no surprise that the key factor in the condition of roads is funding. Melrose indicated that funding is on both the federal and state levels. Maine, he said, has little diversity in its funding for the highway department with 69 percent of those funds drawn from the gasoline tax, which hasn’t been increased since 1993. Overall, he said, there has been a decline in the state’s commitment to its roads.

“In 1975, 26.6 percent of all state spending was on transportation,” he said. “Now, it’s just 9 percent.”

Gas tax revenues are down for a number of reasons. People, particularly younger people, are driving less and they are using less gas because vehicles are much more efficient than they once were. He also noted that the state Legislature had eliminated gas tax indexing, which had allowed the state to regularly adjust the gas tax based on inflation.

Melrose also offered some options for increasing funding for the highway department. Some states already have increased the gas tax, shifted from a per gallon tax to a sales tax, and instituted indexing. He said Maine could look at expanding toll roads beyond the turnpike as a source of transportation funding and also could base auto registration fees, in part, on the miles per gallon rating, or on the number of miles traveled.

Measures to increase a transportation-related sales tax have been tried in the Legislature several times, Melrose said, but have not been successful.

Why roads fail

Bill Cousins, the road commissioner in Blue Hill, gave a brief outline of why roads fail. Drainage, he said, was the main factor. Water on, in and under the roads wreaks havoc on the pavement. Cousins added that the roads were built when the heaviest trucks weighed just 10,000 pounds.

“Now, there are more trucks over 100,000 pounds,” he said. “That’s just not going to work.”

He added that the liquid chemical the state uses in the winter also adds to the deterioration of roads. It gets into cracks and thaws the road base as well as the snow and ice on the road.

“You get mud season year-round,” he said.

The economics of roadways

With that bleak background, residents offered their views on the state of Route 15. Some, like Evelyn Duncan, a Stonington selectman, took an economic view and suggested that the state might revise its priority system to include the economic impact of a road, noting that Stonington is the number one port for lobster in the state.

“We move a lot of lobster—and granite, fuel, bait. We have a lot of very heavy trucks on our road from Blue Hill on down,” she said. “I think they need to look at the priority bit a little closer.”

Paul Greenlaw and Joe Brown, who both operate businesses on the island, spoke of the impact of the roads on their operations. Greenlaw expressed concern about the safety of transporting propane over the roads. His trucks carry about 9,000 gallons of propane gas, he said, adding that driving that load with Route 15 in the condition it’s in, forces him to go slowly.

“That last 12 miles [from Blue Hill down into Deer Isle] took me 45 to 50 minutes,” he said. “That’s how bad the roads are.”

“I’ve never seen the roads this deplorable,” he said.

Brown, who also serves as a Hancock County commissioner, said the condition of the roads was an economic issue, noting that his fleet of vehicles had sustained damage from traveling on roads in such poor condition. That’s an added expense for his and other businesses.

Harold Hatch, a selectman in Penobscot who also works maintaining the fleet of trucks for EBS, echoed that. He said the trucks that travel on Route 15 have seen a lot of damage and wear and tear, more than other EBS trucks that don’t travel that road.

The damage is not confined to commercial vehicles. Stonington Selectman Donna Brewer said that two of the health care workers that provide services on the island had to replace vehicles because of damage caused by the road.

Donald Jones reported that he had made $900 in repairs to an $1,800 trailer this year to fix the damage caused by the road conditions.

“There’s no damn need of it,” he said. “The state ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

The physical and emotional toll

Others expressed concerns about the negative impact the road conditions had on the people of the region. Walt Reed, the assistant chief for Memorial Ambulance Corps, based in Deer Isle, said their job is to transport patients safely and in a timely manner.

“These roads make it extremely difficult for us,” he said.

Many of their patients suffer from head, neck or spinal injuries received in accidents, he said, and smooth transportation is paramount; delivering that service in a timely manner is often critical, he added.

“The roads delay our response time and the time it takes to get people to the hospital,” he said. “And that can make a really big difference. We can’t wait until 2027 or 2022 or even 2015 for a resolution to this critical issue.”

And Marcia Kola said driving on Route 15 has been an emotionally negative experience.

“We drive that road and we get angry every day, and we get frustrated every day and we bring all that energy to our school, our jobs, our families and our homes,” she said. “And this went on for months and months. That’s not good for the population of the island.”

Some rebuild already in the works for Route 15

Scott Rollins, an assistant director of the MDOT bureau of planning, said the department schedules repairs through a three-year work plan that is updated and revised each year in response to concerns and conditions. He noted that, in response to concerns on Route 15, MDOT has included a 7.4-mile section on Route 15 from Orland to Blue Hill in the work plan in an effort to correct problems on that section of road.

Rollins also said that sessions such as the forum are helpful for the department as they plan future road efforts.

Organizers of the forum were pleased with the way the day went.

“I was extremely pleased with the large turnout and grateful to those who testified,” Bllings-Pezaris said. “A lot of them were worried that they weren’t good public speakers, but they got up there and said what was bothering them. It was honest and they talked about issues that people need to hear.”

The forum provided some direction for the towns along that Route 15 corridor. Although they still need to review the issues raised at the forum, Schatz said that there were some areas that might be worth pursuing in the future, including: look at the whole issue of the way roads are prioritized by the state; push the statewide issue of gas tax indexing to create new revenue that is needed; and focus on the Legislature, both on the budgetary issues regarding transportation and on legislation to ensure that the road is attended to.

“We need to challenge them and make sure that this is an issue that doesn’t go away,” he said.

The officials from the organizing towns are expected to meet next week to review the notes taken by the panel members and to begin to form a plan of action.

On behalf of the group, Stonington Selectman Ben Barrows has created an online petition that outlines the problems caused by the road conditions and calls for improvements to the road. That petition already has 412 signatures and also includes an open letter to Governor Paul LePage.