The massive sum that Maine expects from the federal infrastructure bill over the next five years may not be enough to bring roads and internet connections up to date, an economist told a conference on Tuesday.
It will need to piggyback the $2.5 billion in expected federal funds onto existing state and local programs to stretch the dollars. The money from the $1 trillion bill will be used to repair roads, add energy efficiency, expand broadband and improve airports and water infrastructure, among other designated uses.
Those investments are likely to make all parts of Maine more livable and accessible, especially as the hot housing market is taking homebuyers farther into suburban and rural Maine, where broadband connections can be iffy.
But the money won’t just rain down on Maine. The state will need to compete for much of it against other states, making it uncertain how much Maine will get by the end, Charlie Colgan, a economics professor emeritus at the University of Southern Maine, said via a video call to attendees of the annual MEREDA spring real estate conference in Portland.
“We could get more than $2.47 billion if we are good at competing for it, but it’s not going to be enough,” Colgan said. “We’ll need to use federal money to add to, not replace, local money.”
He said the focus of using the money will be to fix what is broken because “it’s only going to get more broken.” By integrating federal funds with money already granted for projects, the state could add transformative technologies such as 5G wireless and wind and solar technologies to transition away from fossil fuels.
The biggest chunk of money, some $1.8 billion, will go toward repairs and expansion of highways, bridges and public transportation. That could add light signals in downtowns 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 $100,000 to $200,000 funding to improve safety in smaller communities and up to $10 million to improve downtown areas in Naples, Hallowell and the Belgrade Lakes Village.
Broadband is another area where funding is already available from multiple sources, including the new $100 million from the infrastructure bill. Some headway is being made in broadband expansion to the 86,000 Mainers who didn’t have effective connections up to a year ago. That number was cut by 34,000 last year as more Mainers received better connections. Federal funding can be used to connect the rest, said Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.
Having broadband to a home can add 3 percent to 6 percent 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 into the future.
“It’s a once in a generational opportunity for us as a state to lever up infrastructure that brings us to the 21st century,” he said. “I say 21st century because there are still people in Maine who have to live off of dial-up because no infrastructure exists where they are.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the number of people who received effective broadband connections last year.