During the first few months of the pandemic, Lewiston pared down its water meter services in order to limit COVID-19 exposure during house visits, but last summer tried to ramp up again.
But a scarcity of meter parts and long waits for new inventory stymied that renewed effort. Inspectors are now restricted to responding to complaints about stopped service and new customer inquiries, said Kevin Gagne, Lewiston’s deputy public works director.
They’ve reached about 100 to 250 people this year. In a normal year, that number would be closer to 1,000, Gagne said.
“We’re not being as proactive as we’d like to be,” he said.
Maine’s public works agencies are the latest witness to pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions, inflation and other problems, as prices for materials like storm drain covers, utility pipes and electrical wiring have increased. Demand for equipment has led to shipping and procurement delays that follow construction projects delayed this summer amid high costs.
The problems are wide-ranging and not limited to the pandemic. For example, a power grid failure in Texas earlier this year led petrochemical factories to temporarily shutter, triggering a shortage of resin, a critical ingredient in producing municipal road paint.
States including Maine have been unable to restripe as many roads as they wanted this year due to the shortage. While Bangor had a mild winter, alleviating the need for major restriping and salting on roads, the city is feeling a pinch, said Aaron Huotari, the public works director.
Costs for electrical supplies like wiring for new switches on streetlights and traffic lights have also gone up, he said. Other infrastructure material prices, such as PVC piping and metal and plastic materials for storm drains and storm drain covers, have also increased.
“As our current contracts run out, the chances are really high that we will have significant exposure, unless the market turns around and the supply chain starts to loosen up a bit and product starts flowing the way it has in the past,” Huotari said.
His department has been able to take advantage of Bangor’s large stockpile of infrastructure material but he’s seen the impact of nationwide delays in “dribs and drabs” when requesting new parts and being told to expect longer wait times.
Input costs for construction rose by almost 28 percent between April 2020 and August 2021, said Matt Marks, the CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Maine. The price index for steel mill products is also up 111 percent from the previous year, he said.
“That’s just massive,” he said.
At the state level, Maine has had to reject bids on construction projects that exceed estimates, said Paul Merrill, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation. It is adding to a long-standing backlog of projects in a system that has been chronically underfunded for years and sat at an unmet need of $200 million in 2020.
Maine saw a windfall from the American Rescue Plan Act, the $2 trillion stimulus bill passed in March that led to $1 billion in direct aid to the state plus $647 million more for counties and municipalities. Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature directed $50 million to roads and bridges.
More could be on the way after the U.S. Senate passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill in August that would bring another $2 billion to Maine, though its fate is tied up with that of a larger Democratic spending bill that progressives and moderates in the party have not yet agreed to. President Joe Biden wants a $3.5 trillion package, but influential Senate moderates want a smaller one between $1 trillion and $2 trillion.
Under the bipartisan bill, the state would get an additional $50 million in the first year for core infrastructure, providing a 25 percent increase to help the state “keep pace with increasing construction and other costs,” Merrill said.