ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The nation's governors are meeting today in Washington. And one of the top items on their agenda is transportation and the lack of money to improve it.
Six months ago, the deadly bridge collapse in Minnesota raised questions about the condition of roads and bridges across the country. One estimate says the country needs at least $220 billions a year in repairs. Right now, federal, state and local governments are spending less than half that. And with the economic downturn, states are having to make tough choices on where their money goes.
As NPR's Kathleen Schalch found on a bumpy road trip to Maine.
KATHLEEN SCHALCH: Pat Moody bounces through the streets of Portland, Maine, in the freezing rain.
Mr. PAT MOODY (AAA, Northern New England): Whoa. That was a big pothole.
SCHALCH: Moody is with AAA of Northern New England. He says Mainers spend $250 million a year fixing cars that get beat up on roads like these.
Mr. MOODY: Last week on this road, we had eight separate instances, all in the span of an hour, where a member called in after hitting a pothole just like this one, and having their tire popped.
SCHALCH: In small towns, the roads often are worse, and it takes longer to get them fixed. Andy Young is from Lincolnville, a couple of hours north of Portland. He says the state roads through his town are falling apart.
Mr. ANDY YOUNG (Resident, Lincolnville): They started out as potholes, and now there are literally 20-, 30-feet stretches where the pavement is gone. Cars are bottoming out. You can't go any faster than 10, 15 miles an hour. It's ridiculous. We've never seen anything like it before. And it's just - it's not good, and it's not safe.
SCHALCH: This month, Young started what a local paper called the pothole rebellion. He circulated a petition asking the town government to withhold state taxes until the state repaves the roads.
Mr. YOUNG: I think anybody that saw the petition signed it. There's a lot of mad people.
SCHALCH: The trouble is — as even Young admits — there are bad roads and angry drivers all over the state.
Mr. YOUNG: They want better roads. Nobody wants to pay more taxes.
SCHALCH: Maine needs at least two and a half billion dollars over the next decade to fix its ailing transportation infrastructure. No one knows where the money is going to come from. And priorities have shifted.
Maria Fuentes is with a coalition called the Maine Better Transportation Association. She says three decades ago, a quarter of the state's revenues went to transportation.
Ms. MARIA FUENTES (Executive Director, Maine Better Transportation Association): The percentage that goes to transportation is now less than 10 percent. It's the same on the federal level. If you look at defense, you look at all sorts of things, and transportation makes a tiny sliver.
SCHALCH: The money for roads and bridges comes mainly from gasoline taxes. The federal government hasn't raised fuel taxes since 1993. Maine at least indexes its fuel tax to inflation, but revenues have been flat or declining, says state senator and transportation expert Dennis Damon. And at the same time, prices for asphalt, concrete and steel have skyrocketed.
State Senator DENNIS DAMON (Democrat, Hancock, Maine): The cost of construction for highways and bridges in Maine has increased by 50 percent over the last three years. And so the alligator's mouth, as I refer to it, is opening wider and wider.
SCHALCH: And, Damon says, many roads and bridges in Maine and other states were built a half a century ago or more. They're reaching the end of their expected life span and need to be repaired or replaced.
State Sen. DAMON: What happens? Oh, we continue to limp over them, we continue to make do and ultimately, people die. It's not as acute and graphic as a bridge collapse, but it happens every single day somewhere on a road in the United States, and it's because of this deterioration.
SCHALCH: To keep people as safe as possible, states like Maine are making tough decisions.
Mr. JOHN BUXTON (Lead Bridge Maintenance Engineer, DOT Maine): We're going to close this bridge. It should happen within a matter of days.
SCHALCH: John Buxton is Maine's lead bridge maintenance engineer. He's under an old bridge on a country road near Freeport. Melting ice drips from the corroding support beams.
Mr. BUXTON: What used to be steel is now rust.
SCHALCH: Buxton also sees cracks in the stone abutment. He's afraid it could shift or give way.
Mr. BUXTON: Somebody on a dark, stormy night wouldn't be able to see it. They'd be driving into a hole.
SCHALCH: In cities like Portland, permanently closing bridges isn't practical. But bridges are wearing out twice as fast as the state is able to replace them. So as bridges deteriorate, engineers post signs limiting the weight of vehicles that can legally cross them. They've just posted this one on Beranda(ph) Street.
Mr. BUXTON: What can't go over here - a plow truck, a fire truck, a fully loaded oil truck, the full-sized Metro bus and a school bus.
SCHALCH: This is a heavily traveled bridge.
Mr. BUXTON: Yeah. There's 5,000 cars a day on this bridge.
SCHALCH: Buxton says these restrictions used to be pretty rare.
Mr. BUXTON: It used to be that you'd post or close a bridge every now and again, and now it's becoming common practice, and I only see it happening exponentially.
SCHALCH: Unless Maine nearly doubles its spending on bridges.
Mr. MOODY: You get the old saying in Maine, you can't get there from here.
SCHALCH: That's Patrick Moody of AAA.
Mr. MOODY: And that's more and more going to be the case if our bridges continue to get posted and our roads continue decaying. You won't be able to get to certain portions in Maine.
SCHALCH: Or as Mainers joke, you may need a horse.
Kathleen Schalch, NPR News.
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