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Originally published in Castine Patriot, April 17, 2014
Road conditions mean headaches for some, more work for others

Potholes still a plague on local roads

As weather warms, the frost heaves get a bit better, but are still a concern for drivers, from Castine down to Stonington. Above, a pot hole on Route 15 in Deer Isle, Maine.

Photo by Anne Berleant Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Rich Hewitt

Bone crunching, teeth breaking, back-bending, neck-cracking, belly-turning.

That’s what the drive down just about any section of Route 15 in Hancock County has become. Now, in a “mad-as-hell-and-not-gonna-take-it-anymore” move, towns along that key western county corridor are organizing to protest the conditions on the road. Kathleen Billings-Pezaris, the town manager in Stonington where the effort originated, reported to selectmen that the initial reaction to developing a united front among the affected towns has been positive.

The ball is rolling and it could roll all the way to Augusta.

Over the past few weeks, Jim Schatz, a selectman in Blue Hill, has been working with Billings-Pezaris to contact selectmen in other area towns experiencing similar conditions on the state roads that wind through their towns. The result, he said, is an organized effort at some type of a public hearing.

The hearing has been scheduled for Saturday, May 10, at The Reach Auditorium in Deer Isle. (See story below for more information.)

“A hearing on the topic that would bring together the ‘victims’ of this road with the ‘doctors’ who might have at least part of the cure, might be a good thing,” he said.

“It’s payback time for years of deferred maintenance on that road,” he said. “Pleas of poverty at the state won’t wash anymore. They need to take some remedy in hand, whether it’s bonding, taxes or a better use of resources, to make it happen.”

Route 15, which is the main drag from Orland through the Blue Hill Peninsula, has become a burden for those who travel it daily.

Mechanics in towns along that route report that the conditions on the road have contributed to more repair business for them this winter.

“We’re seeing more broken springs, struts, ball joints and tires than usual,” said Bryan McVay who operates a garage right on Route 15 in Blue Hill. “The roads around here are very poor and even when it warms up, they’re still going to be in very bad condition.”

Some of the vehicles that are taking a pounding are emergency vehicles that often need to respond quickly. That takes a toll on the vehicles, according to Lt. Pat Kane of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office. Kane said that several of the department’s cruisers have been in the shop to repair broken springs this winter.

More importantly, he said, is the impact the poor roads have on the ability of deputies to respond to emergencies.

“When the roads are in this condition, and you’re trying to respond to an emergency, you need to have a different pace than you’d like to go,” he said. “It does slow down response time.”

He said the people it affects the most are the firefighters and ambulance drivers. Kane said he had a report of an ambulance coming up from Stonington that had to travel at about 7 or 8 mph the whole way.

“That’s always a consideration, how you take care of your patient,” said Geoff Miller, the manager at Peninsula Ambulance Corps in Blue Hill. “If you’ve got a patient with a fractured bone, you just can’t take them over these roads.”

With the roads this bad, he said, drivers consider the options when they have to move a patient to Bangor. Often the decision is to go to Ellsworth and up Route 1A. Even though it’s a longer drive, it’s a much smoother road, he said.

Although the PAC’s two ambulances are brand new and have not been pounded by the roads yet, that is always another concern when the road conditions get bad.

“The job we do is rough on a truck anyway, and when you get a rough road, it can have an impact on the budget,” he said.

If Route 15 is a key artery on the mainland, it is the only road to the island towns of Deer Isle and Stonington. Selectmen in Stonington have noted the impact the poor roads will have on the local economy, particularly the lobster industry.

The roads are a factor for the fishing industry, according to Ronnie Trundy, the manager at the Stonington Lobster Co-op.

“We send millions of pounds of lobster and we have only one road,” he said. “That’s about $47 million worth of lobster and we have to deal with a road like this. It’s time somebody did something about it.”

Although he said he couldn’t determine whether the roads have had a direct impact on business this winter, Trundy said the road conditions are having an impact on the drivers and their rigs.

“I know the drivers certainly don’t want to come down here anymore, and it can’t be good on the lobsters bouncing around like that,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who has $100,000 tied up in a truck who would want to bring it down here with product on—or empty for that matter.”

The concerns of the local towns may already have been heard at MDOT. Spokesman Ted Talbot said Tuesday that one of the engineers had driven sections of the road that day to assess what was happening with the road.

“It is a bad road,” he said. “No doubt about it.”

Talbot noted that MDOT has a three-year work plan that does not currently include Route 15, but he said the department is reassessing that work plan and looking at problem roads like Route 15 as well as some of the state’s better roads that have been affected by the rough winter.

“As we look at the roads statewide and prioritize, roads like Route 15 will come into focus,” Talbot said.

He echoed local officials when he said that addressing the problems on Route 15 will need much more than a skim coat. That road needs a reconstruction, he said.

Talbot did not have a timeline for any action on the road, noting that the MDOT’s process has to be one that is statewide.

“We have to look at the whole state, not just that road,” he said. “We have to look at it holistically, look at what we need to do and what we can do,” he said. “It’s a big question and we certainly need to address the problem.”