Feature | Brian W. Budzynski, Tim Bruns and Bill Wilson | July 05, 2017

Region Report: New England

The next installment in our region report series turns to Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire

MAINE:
Up in salmon country

by Brian W. Budzynski, Managing Editor

 

“Engineering used to be about mobility, but now it’s more about reliability and safety. Speed is not a primary concern for us.”

 

“Us” being the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT), as exemplified by Chief Engineer Joyce Taylor. The state of Maine is something of a hybrid land area, where coastline rivals interior mileage and bodies of water are a stone’s throw from pretty much any dry area in the state.

 

“We really have a lot of water, both inland with lakes and along the coastline,” Taylor told Roads & Bridges. “Maine is a big landmass state for New England. If you stretched out our coastline, we would rival some of the biggest states in the U.S., in terms of actual coastal miles. As such, environmental concerns, notably fish passages, affect everything we do. Every bridge, every culvert, everything.”

 

While environmental concerns are not exclusive to coastal states, Maine is unique in being a quite sizable habitat region. “We have two-thirds of the state considered a critical habitat for endangered species, the largest such landmass in the country, and a big part of that is due to Atlantic salmon,” Taylor said.

 

MDOT recently signed an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) that includes sizing culverts and bridges. When USFW expresses concern about a habitat, the agreement allows MDOT to go to a 1.2 bankfull size, which is 1.2 times the bankfull width of the crossing in question, or to do mitigation, by which the agency allows other areas in need to do work with its money, if a specific crossing area cannot meet the 1.2 bankfull criteria. A result of this agreement has been instead of projects taking months or even years, MDOT is getting notices from USFW in only a couple of weeks. This has been a boon to department planners.

 

“For us time is money,” Taylor said, “so being able to get an answer quickly, instead of being stuck in years of process, goes a long way toward helping us do even simple maintenance, because we get all the ground rules laid out in advance. We were already doing things the way USFW wanted us to, so in this sense it just reinforces our efforts and gets us going quicker.”

 

Rough roads

Maine has been in a deep struggle with deteriorating roads for some time now. According to a report from TRIP, driving on deficient roads costs Mainers an annual accumulated $1 billion in operating costs, congestion-related delays and traffic incidents. Moreover, 84% of its rural roads are in, at best, only fair condition. Staggering figures for a state with relatively few dense urban clusters. Some of this degradation can be traced to heavy truck traffic. Each year, $89 billion in goods are shipped in and out of the state, a bulk of which is constituted by the wood and forestry industry, though some can be traced to a dearth of funding.

 

“We’re probably at the right level of funding for roads, but we’re not spending enough on pavement and pavement preservation as we need to,” Taylor said. “So from now on major reconstruction projects will have to compete against paving and maintenance. They’ll have to be crucial from an economic or safety standpoint, and they really will have to make a difference. No reconstructions just because we can anymore. We also created a cyclical pavement-resurfacing program we call CPR, which acknowledges the plain fact that we will likely never reconstruct some of our rural farm roads, but that we can do drainage and maintain the roads in a condition where we can keep them.”

 

For MDOT this is more than an action plan, it is a fundamental alteration in its operating philosophy.

 

“We’ve really switched our thought process and priority to preservation,” Taylor said. “20% of all bridge funding has to be spent on preservation, for example. We’re really pushing toward extending the life of our infrastructure and getting every year of life we can out of it.”

 

Bridgework on the Rte. 1 viaduct coming through the town of Bath.

 

Speaking of bridges

According to TRIP, 34% of Maine’s bridges show significant deterioration or do not meet current design standards, and the latest FHWA data cites 14% of the state’s bridges as being in “poor” condition. Whereas most other states have a hard and clear line between state-owned and locally owned bridges, MDOT more or less has jurisdiction over every bridge statewide.

 

“The counties don’t own very many bridges,” Taylor said. “MDOT inspects even locally owned bridges. If it’s over 20 ft, we’re going to own it anyway. We generated a Keeping Our Bridges Safe report in 2014 because we were beginning to post a lot of bridges, and we knew there were also a lot of bridges that were going to get posted or even closed in the near future. We needed to get our arms around this.”

 

The report made clear that over the past 15 years MDOT had been spending 40% of its bridge money on only 36 bridges, known as the Forever Bridges, which meant smaller bridges were getting short shrift in both maintenance and rehabilitation.

 

“We’re now running an aggressive preservation program to make sure things won’t slip,” Taylor said. “We have a highway corridor priority system, so on lower priority roads, if a bridge is poor and it’s not an economic issue, we ask: Is it safe? Does it need to carry heavy traffic? And then it comes down to the school bus/fire truck check. Can we keep it posted with no economic disadvantage, while regular vehicles are still safe to go over it? We then put money into the bridges that need stronger maintenance that are on higher-priority corridors or withstand more and heavier traffic. As a result, we can now control what gets posted.”

 

A safe future

The fatality rate on Maine’s rural roads is 3.5 times higher than on all other roads in the state—1.32 deaths per 100 million miles traveled vs. 0.39. According to Taylor, much of this can be sourced to a single cause: “Our No.1 cause of fatalities and injuries is run-off-the-road. Consequently, we have an aggressive rumble-strip program. We did 80 miles of strips last year, and we’re doing 80 more this year. We targeted areas with high fatality rates, and now we’re veering toward similar roads with lower rates where we think we’ll see the benefit of a rumble strip.”

 

MDOT also has adopted FHWA’s Every Day Counts, looking at both data-driven decisions and making considerations for issues data cannot solve.

 

“Our pedestrian deaths have gone up the last few years,” Taylor said, “but since they don’t compare to vehicular deaths, the data-driven approach wasn’t working. We’ve refocused our bike/ped safety work. We have three pilots going on right now: In Bangor, we’re working with an older population and their safety issues; we have a large immigrant population in the Lewiston/Auburn area, so we’re working with folks who have English as a second language; and in the Portland area there is a homeless and poverty-stricken population issue, and we’re working with that group.”

 

The philosophy is a function of formula: Engineering plus enforcement plus education, all tailored to each specific population area.

 

“We really have our eye on safety,” Taylor said. “We’re trying to identify how to keep our system intact; it’s not sexy stuff, but it’s the stuff that needs to get done.”

 

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An aerial shot of the I-91 Viaduct Rehabilitation project in Springfield, Mass. Photo: MassDOT Flickr

 

MASSACHUSETTS:
Moving through the Commonwealth

by Tim Bruns, Associate Editor

 

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) certainly has their work cut out for them, as a TRIP report released in May of this year indicated that 81% of the state’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and that 9% of bridges in the Bay State are structurally deficient.

 

According to MassDOT Communications Specialist Patrick Marvin, the department considers a variety of factors that include public need and condition of infrastructure when prioritizing transportation construction projects, while remaining committed to maintaining a reliable transportation system that meets all the Commonwealth’s travel needs.

 

One way in which this goal is achieved is through the state’s multi-year $50 million municipal small bridge program. MassDOT is responsible for inspecting over 5,000 bridges throughout the Commonwealth. These inspections must be done at least every two years, including on municipally owned bridges. The department uses federal funds to address structurally deficient municipal bridges as part of its State Transportation Improvement program. Earlier this year, the administration under Gov. Charlie Baker awarded $16 million for 36 municipal small bridge projects that were not eligible for federal funding. The money goes toward supporting the preservation, repair or replacement of bridges with spans of 10-20 ft.

 

A five-year Capital Investment Plan (CIP) guides investments for MassDOT and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) as they work to achieve long-term mobility and sustainability goals by using state and federal funding to pay for long-term improvements to the state’s transportation system. MassDOT and MBTA are in the process of finalizing the FY 2018-2022 CIP.

 

According to a letter from Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, allocation of the funds contained in the CIP for the next five years reflects a new priority-driven investment strategy. About 56% of the $17.4 billion in capital investments will go toward improving the core transportation system’s reliability, while another 19% will be set aside to modernize existing assets so that they may better accommodate growth and meet 21st century demands.

 

In the works

One of the major projects on the horizon for MassDOT is the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge Replacement in Boston. The goal of the $101 million project is to replace the existing structurally deficient superstructure, which carries Commonwealth Avenue and the MBTA Green Line B branch over the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90) and the MBTA Commuter Rail line.

 

The department is using accelerated bridge construction (ABC) techniques to reduce the construction impacts from 4-5 years down to two intensive shutdown windows to finish the work on the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge. The first construction shutdown is coming up this summer, lasting just under three weeks from the end of July to early August, when work on the eastbound side of Commonwealth Avenue and the Green Line B segments will be completed. Finishing up westbound Commonwealth Avenue will be the focus of the second shutdown in the summer of 2018.

 

Also in progress along the Massachusetts Turnpike, the Toll Plaza Demolition and Roadway Reconstruction project is seeking to demolish the existing toll plazas on I-90. Beginning in October 2016, the $132 million project is divided in two stages and should be completed by the end of this year. The work is part of the state’s transition to all-electronic tolling along the Turnpike. Throughout the Commonwealth, 24 different manual toll-plaza locations will be demolished and the roadway on the Turnpike will be reconstructed for standard highway use.

 

Another project on MassDOT’s plate involves an elevated structure in the city of Springfield. The $148 million I-91 Viaduct Rehabilitation project will replace the existing deck of the I-91 viaduct. According to MassDOT, the project is progressing on an accelerated schedule to minimize traffic impacts and reduce the duration of construction. The goal is that once completed, this project will increase safety and accessibility on the busy interstate, reduce annual maintenance costs and ensure long-term service. The rehab project will receive 80% of its funding from the Federal Highway Administration, while the rest will be state funded. Work on the I-91 viaduct began in 2015 and is expected to come to completion in 2018.

 

A visualization of the Toll Plaza Demolition and Roadway Reconstruction project on the Mass Turnpike. Photo: MassDOT Highway Division

 

Patching things up

MassDOT recently announced that it is in the process of expanding its new pothole information program. This program is part of an effort to keep the public informed about road conditions as well as to maximize winter-maintenance efforts in the state. The pothole information program was piloted in the central and western areas of Massachusetts over the past year and includes an online dashboard that provides data to the public. The online dashboard includes a map that details pothole locations and size, the number of potholes filled, the type of material used, and the total cost.

 

“By engaging the public, we gain the advantage of quicker response and repair times, which translates to safer, more efficient travel for everyone who uses the Commonwealth’s roads,” Secretary Pollack said in a MassDOT blog post. The pothole repair program features a field application where road crews can input data outlining information such as the date, time, cost and materials used to repair potholes. That information has the ability to be made public via the online dashboard. The program has been successfully piloted in the Springfield and Worcester areas and will be expanded to the remaining districts over the next several months.

 

MassDOT also is becoming more vigilant in its efforts to increase work-zone safety for its employees and law-enforcement personnel out on road maintenance and construction sites. Since last summer until the beginning of this year, the Massachusetts State Police documented 395 crashes within work zones under their jurisdiction, which resulted in 181 injuries. As a result, MassDOT convened a work-zone safety task force in 2016 to analyze and evaluate work-zone activities.

 

“After several work-zone crashes last year, we convened a task force to determine if additional steps could be taken to keep work-zone crews safer,” Pollack said in a blog post. “We are pleased that the task force has recommended several innovative measures and ideas, and we are beginning to integrate these new features into MassDOT setups in order to increase safety for everyone.”

 

According to MassDOT’s blog, some of the new safety devices being pursued for implementation in work zones by the department include: flashing blue LED lights on portable trailers; temporary rumble strips placed at the entrances of work zones to alert drivers; truck-mounted attenuators to shield highway workers; sequential drum lights to guide motorists away from closed sections of roadways; and radar speed feedback boards that display motorist speeds.

 

Looking to the future

Last fall, Gov. Baker signed an executive order “To Promote the Testing and Deployment of Highly Automated Driving Technologies.” The order creates a special working group on automated vehicles (AVs) that includes, among other officials, the secretary of transportation. The “AV Working Group” is being tasked with consulting and convening with experts on motor-vehicle safety and automation, as well as collaborating with members of the state Legislature on proposed legislation for automated vehicles.

 

Additionally, the AV Group is set up to support Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreements with companies looking to test AVs in Massachusetts. These agreements will include a process for companies to obtain approval for testing self-driving vehicles, which involves submitting an application demonstrating the vehicle has passed a Registry of Motor Vehicles inspection, can be operated without undue risk to public safety and will have a human being inside the vehicle at all times while traveling.

 

So far, NuTonomy and Optimus Ride have both announced that they have approved applications and an MOU with both MassDOT and the city of Boston to test AVs within the state’s capital.

 

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The Sarah Mildred Long Bridge carries Rte. 1 over the Piscataqua River. Work on the new span is expected to be complete this fall.

 

NEW HAMPSHIRE:
Ready for completion

by Bill Wilson, Editorial Director

 

4.2 is an exact number—one which is usually reserved for the Richter Scale or a star score average for a hotel experience. Those at the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT) were just glad to see it with their own eyes two years ago.

 

Facing an expiring road and bridge network and a mounting back log of projects, the New Hampshire state Legislature passed a 4.2-cent gas-tax hike in 2014, and NHDOT jumped at the chance to finally make some headway.

 

“The [gas-tax hike] was restricted specifically for highway and bridge work so we have been putting that to really good use to cap some major projects to get them finished, as well as address some overall deferred maintenance needs in paving and bridges,” Bill Cass, assistant commissioner and chief engineer at NHDOT, told Roads & Bridges.

 

The agency was able to tag the increase at the pump with a $200 million, low-interest TIFIA loan to really get things moving. For years NHDOT was doing less than 500 miles of paving each construction season, but over the last two years the average has been more than 650 miles, and the overall system pavement condition has improved 4%. TIFIA’s hardest kick came in 2016, when NHDOT had a contract value of over $360 million. In 2017 the level is at a little over $200 million. The FAST Act also has helped, providing a 5% bump in funding.

 

“It’s gratifying because we are showing some positive results,” said Cass. “We are getting some major projects done and we are also able to keep up and make some headway on some of our routine maintenance needs.”

 

Work on the massive I-93 project is ongoing. Crews are expanding 20 miles of the interstate.

 

Working on it

The biggest of all the projects in New Hampshire has been the I-93 job, which started in earnest in 2009 but was slowed by the lack of funding prior to 2014. The $800 million project entails widening and improving 20 miles of I-93 from the Massachusetts border up to Manchester, the state’s largest city. NHDOT attacked the southern portion early on, and now is on the final stretch following the letting of the final four contracts. The project was divided up into three phases, according to Cass. The first was early action projects which included several overpass bridges and other supporting infrastructure.

 

“We built park-and-ride facilities and bus stations to support expanded bus service in the corridor during construction at three of the major interchanges,” said Cass.

 

The second phase dealt with priority improvements, including 18 bridges on the structurally deficient list (NHDOT calls it the Red List). The third phase involved capacity improvements. I-93 will go from two lanes in each direction to four.

 

The number of structurally deficient bridges will unfortunately be going in the wrong direction in the coming years. According to the FHWA, New Hampshire has 10% of its spans rated as poor, which compared to the national average is not bad, but Cass said the number will increase over the next decade. NHDOT is currently looking at about 150 Red List bridges right now, but will have 180-185 deficient bridges by 2027.

 

“We do not feel like we are keeping up with the bridge needs,” said Cass. “We are putting much more emphasis on preservation to try to limit the number of bridges that go to the Red List.”

 

Crews have been going at a good clip replacing the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, which carries Rte. 1 and crosses the Piscataqua River between Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, Maine. NHDOT and the Maine DOT are teaming up on this project, with Maine DOT taking the lead. The old bridge, built in 1940, was a steel truss, vertical-lift bridge that was a nightmare to navigate through. The new bridge, expected to be complete this fall at a cost of $158.5 million, will have 11 fewer piers than the first one and comes with a 56-ft-high vertical clearance, resulting in 68% fewer bridge openings. Two 200-ft-tall precast concrete towers will support the 300-ft-long streamlined structural steel box girder lift span.

 

The project is part of a Three Bridge Agreement between Maine and New Hampshire. A trio of spans, the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, the Memorial Bridge and the I-95 Bridge, carry traffic over the Piscataqua, and are packed into a section that is about a mile long. The Memorial Bridge was replaced a few years ago, and the I-95 is expected to be worked on as soon as the Sarah Mildred Long venture is complete. The I-95 is a steel truss bridge, and crews will rehab the structure rather than start fresh.

 

“All three bridges are really needed to handle the intrastate traffic in that area,” said Cass.

 

NHDOT also is addressing a bottleneck on the Spaulding Turnpike between Newington and Portsmouth. Work has included widening the Little Bay Bridge and reconstructing interchanges in Millington and Dover.

 

“We are finally getting to a point where we can see in the next two to three years these major projects coming to full completion and having the benefits of congestion relief,” said Cass.

 

Right now NHDOT is just trying to complete what it can complete, while mixing in some rehabilitation projects. According to Cass, for a long time the agency was in a worst-first mode, and structurally deficient bridges were a main focus.

 

“We are trying to take a more balanced approach. We still need to address the structurally deficient bridges, and they are still a priority, but we are also taking a cognizant approach, a dedicated approach, to putting some resources towards preservation and maintenance as well,” he said.

 

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The region report series will conclude in December with The West Coast.

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