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Here's how the infrastructure bill will boost funding for Maine's transportation initiatives

75 mph speed limit
Pat Wellenbach
Motorists are seen cruising both northbound and southbound on I-95 near the Old Town, Maine, exit on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011. Next week motorists traveling north from Old Town will be permitted to drive faster when the speed limit becomes 75 mph, the fastest in New England. Maine's Transportation Department will post 75 mph speed limits from Old Town to Houlton.

The Maine Department of Transportation is anticipating a significant funding boost from the massive infrastructure bill that passed the U.S. House late last week and now awaits President Joe Biden's signature. Transportation commissioner Bruce Van Note says that in addition to bolstering the state's highway and bridge program by $1.3 billion, it also directs funding toward a range of other transportation initiatives while giving the state a chance to compete for even more federal dollars.

"This is the largest investment in roads, bridges and highways since the creation of the interstate highway system, including the largest investment in our bridges ever," said federal transportation chief Pete Buttigieg about the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

The state of Maine has to maintain more than 8,200 miles of roads, 3,000 bridges, three deep water ports, a half dozen ferry terminals, as well as commercial airports and railroads.

Given declining gas tax revenues and increased construction costs, it has been a challenge the state has struggled to meet; the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state's infrastructure a grade of C-minus.

But there is some relief on the horizon.

This year Maine voters approved a $100 million transportation bond to help the state chip away at a backlog of projects and the new two-year budget for the first time ever dedicated another $100 million from the general fund.

And state transportation chief Bruce Van Note says the new federal infrastructure funding could change the dynamic from having to scramble just to keep up to possibly giving the state a chance to pursue wish-list projects that are currently out of reach.

"DOT for a long time has been in what I call 'MacGyver mode,' just trying to hold together what ya got," he said. "The discretionary grant programs let's us do things like reimaging villages and downtowns and apply for grant funding for that, so it does not take away from rural areas."

Van Note is referring to two separate provisions in the infrastructure bill.

One provides the state $1.3 billion for its highway and bridge program. The other allows the state to compete for billions of dollars in funding for projects with demonstrable economic benefits.

"We're always going to be thrifty because that's just responsible. But with discretionary money it's not like you're taking away from the core, day-to-day stuff. It allows you to think a little bit more expansively about what we want Maine to be and what transportation can do to take us there," he said.

Van Note says the state is awaiting federal guidance on how the grant program will work and what the rules will be.

Other spending initiatives will need to be developed at the state level, including the $19 million for electric vehicle charging stations and $100 million for broadband expansion.

Overall, he says, the slug of federal funds will provide much needed relief for the state's current transportation workplan, and allow for a little ambition in the one for next year.