Maine may not get all the federal money it needs for roads and broadband

The massive sum Maine is expecting from the federal infrastructure bill over the next five years may not be enough to update roads and internet connections, an economist told a conference on Tuesday.

It will have to piggyback the expected $2.5 billion in federal funds on existing state and local programs to stretch the dollars. Money from the $1 trillion bill will be used to repair roads, improve energy efficiency, expand broadband, and improve airports and water infrastructure, among other designated uses.

These investments will likely make all parts of Maine more livable and accessible, especially as the booming real estate market drives buyers further into Maine’s suburbs and countryside, where broadband connections can be iffy.

But money won’t just rain down on Maine. The state will have to compete much of it against other states, making it uncertain how much Maine will get by the end of it, said Charlie Colgan, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Southern Maine, via a video call to participants of the annual meeting. MEREDA Spring Real Estate Conference in Portland.

“We could get over $2.47 billion if we’re good at getting it, but it’s not going to be enough,” Colgan said. “We will have to use federal money to supplement, not replace, local money.”

He said the goal of using the money will be to fix what’s broken because “it’s only going to get worse”. By integrating federal funds with funds already granted for projects, the state could add transformative technologies such as 5G wireless and wind and solar technologies to move away from fossil fuels.

The largest sum of money, some $1.8 billion, will go towards repairing and expanding highways, bridges and public transit. It could add traffic lights in downtown areas to make them safer and restore roads or add bike lanes in communities, said Dale Doughty, director of planning at the Maine Department of Transportation.

Department projects are already underway for funding of $100,000 to $200,000 to improve safety in small communities and up to $10 million to improve downtown Naples, Hallowell and the Lakes Village of Belgrade.

Broadband is another area where funding is already available from multiple sources, including the new $100 million infrastructure bill. Progress is being made in expanding broadband for the 86,000 Mainers who did not have effective connections until a year ago. That number was reduced to 35,000 without connections last year, and federal funding can be used to connect the rest, said Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

Having broadband in a home can add 3-6% to a property’s value, said Kerem Durdag, CEO of Biddeford-based internet company GWI. He said the funding represents a chance for Maine to move forward into the future.

“This is a unique opportunity for us as a state to strengthen the infrastructure that brings us into the 21st century,” he said. “I say 21st century because there are still people in Maine who have to live on dial-up access because there is no infrastructure where they are.”

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