Harrison looks to cash in on low asphalt prices, considers road project bond

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

HARRISON — Richard St. John would be the first to defend the town’s efforts over the past several years to be relatively debt-free.

But, the longtime selectman also recognizes an unexpected opportunity for the Town of Harrison to “dig itself” out of a road maintenance hole and pave the way for a smoother future.

With fuel prices remaining low, the cost of asphalt is at a level Town Manager Bud Finch hasn’t seen in years.

So, when the Finch rolled out a 20-year comprehensive road plan at last Thursday’s selectmen’s meeting, he proposed an intriguing idea.

To put a real dent in the list of needed road improvements, Finch sees a golden opportunity to tackle work slated over a 10-year span to be done in two years by capitalizing on low asphalt costs and low interest rates.

The trigger: a $1.3 million bond.

“While I realize, at least for the most part, the town has chosen not to bond projects, I believe the current opportunity to accomplish 10 years of paving in a two-year period would allow us to be that much closer to our long-term goal of economical maintenance of our roads,” said Finch during a PowerPoint presentation to selectmen. “The cost of liquid asphalt is lower than it has been in some time…The ability to put a large project out to bid brings greater competition and far more for our money.”

Selectman St. John likes the idea. “This is an opportunity that I think can work,” he said.

With an expected large turnout this November due to the presidential election, Finch would like to put the question out to voters then. Since last Thursday’s meeting was a workshop, selectmen decided to mull over the idea and will decide whether to place a referendum question on the November ballot at their next regularly-scheduled meeting.

Mapping the future

Residents often wonder, “Why is that road being paved and not mine?”

Some felt it was a matter of “who you know” over “what needs to be done.”

Through advances in computer technology, Harrison officials have utilized a mapping program that has enabled them to identify roadways as either Tier 1, 2 or 3 — based on the amount of travel — and “grade” roads using various colors — green = good shape, no maintenance; red = reconstruction; orange = needs rehab; yellow = preventative — indicating condition and what maintenance is needed.

One example is Tolman Road. The town had to deal with an unexpected sinkhole (“it was like soup”) last spring.

“It’s one of those roads less traveled, but is in horrendous condition,” Board of Selectmen Chairman Matthew Frank said.

Selectman Bill Winslow agreed. “In some places, it’s not wide enough for two cars to pass.”

Even though the road is a short one, the work plan has it broken up into four sections since each “has its own issues.”

Unlike years ago when certain road projects were done before others based on “how loud one complained,” Finch said the program allows the town to prioritize based on need, and can be quickly adjusted based on circumstances.

Town Clerk Melissa St. John gave an overview of the computer program, which also allows inputting other information such as street sign locations and sign condition.

It was a process to log information for 45-plus miles of town roadways (including many private drives), but a clearer picture was developed and helped officials plot a comprehensive, long-term road plan.

The “term” can be shortened if Harrison taxpayers like the idea of bonding. Finch told selectmen that towns fell behind in road maintenance in the mid-1990s when the price of asphalt rose significantly due to higher oil prices and other reasons.

“Typically, as the price of pavement doubled, tripled and in many cases far more, the method utilized to combat the cost was spending the same amount of money annually for less pavement,” Finch said. “This left us ‘digging a hole so to speak’ in terms of keeping our roads up to a higher standard with no plan to stop digging — thus digging deeper and deeper.”

By 2010, Harrison officials and taxpayers realized how local roads were falling further and further behind the maintenance eight ball. Greater emphasis was made to replace culverts and dig ditches to keep water off pavement during the winter months, thus preventing cracking.

Finch says the ultimate goal is to tackle major roadwork and put the town in a position that, in future years, preventative work and general maintenance is all taxpayers will face.

While not etched in stone, Finch did check current rates at the Maine Bond Bank. Interest rates sit at 3.45 to 3.54% — so the town would be looking at approximately $56,000 in interest. Finch said the town would also check banks to see if better terms could be had. Firmer figures would be secured prior to a November vote.

Always cognizant of the local tax rate, Finch said the goal would either be to bring a slight tax hike to taxpayers or find a way to develop a flat budget.

In the end, Finch said he can live with taxpayers’ decision, either to bond or not to bond.

“It’s a good opportunity. For me, nothing is lost. If the town says no, it’s a no,” he said.

The Project List

  • Road improvements 2016, work begins in September — Temple Hill Road, Stirling Road, East Shore Drive, North Beach Road, South Beach Road, Hemlock Lane
  • Road improvements 2017–2022, estimated costs $1,343,000

Dawes Hill Road, 1.64 miles, $400,000

Deer Hill Road, 1.25 miles, $325,000

Buck Road, 1.1 miles, $200,000

Fogg Road, 1.25 miles, $228,000

Town Farm Road, .95 miles, $190,000

  • Road improvements 2023–2025, estimated costs $600,000

Maple Ridge Road — Rte. 117 to Haskell Hill Road, 2.25 miles

Maples Ridge Road — Haskell Hill Road to Carsley Road, 1.13 miles

Maple Ridge Road — Carsley Road to Mailbox #925, 1.01 miles

Maple Ridge Road — Mailbox #925 to Edes Falls Road, .62 miles

  • The road project is broken up into four sections due to the different work that needs to be undertaken, from a top coat to a full regrind, gravel and paving in the worst section.
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