Blue Hill Selectmen Look Twice At Federal “Safe Routes” Grant

BLUE HILL — Federal grants for infrastructure projects are highly sought after, but when strings attached to the grant effectively double the cost of the project, they aren’t always accepted.

Michael Astbury, the town’s former road commissioner, met with selectmen last Friday to discuss foregoing a federal Safe Routes to School grant and locally funding a sidewalk project that was designed to meet the goal of the Safe Routes program.

Two years ago, the town was notified that it had been approved to receive a $65,000 federal Safe Routes to School grant, which is administered through the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT).

The project was to include construction of a 4-foot wide sidewalk with 6-inch curbs beginning at the intersection of Union and High streets and extending along High Street to Pleasant Street. Also included in the project was construction of a footbridge along the south side of the High Street Bridge.

At the time, town officials believed the local share for the project would be covered by in-kind work done on Beech Hill Road and that the grant would cover the cost of the sidewalk project, leaving the town to fund only related drainage work.

Selectman Jim Schatz said personnel changes at the MDOT resulted in delays to the project, as the necessary paperwork for accessing the grant was “lost in the shuffle.”

Schatz said that when the paperwork resumed about a year ago, the town discovered that “more strings had been attached.”

For one, the town is required to submit a preliminary report that meets guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“The manual that describes what’s involved is two and a half inches thick,” Schatz said.

The new rules require licensed engineers to provide cost estimates and project drawings. According to a conceptual cost estimate prepared for the town by Pine Tree Engineering of Bath, design engineering is estimated to cost $15,300 and construction engineering would add another $8,600 to the project. Federal guidelines also require a $10,000 contingency, and the town has learned that the project it completed on Beech Hill Road does not qualify as its matching portion of the grant.

“It just looks like it’s doubling the cost of a project,” said Selectman John Bannister.

Other aspects of the construction project have added to the overall cost. Excavation and materials are now estimated to cost $99,800, bringing the total project cost to $133,700. Schatz said he would find out whether more federal money for the project is available, but for now, the grant remains at $65,000.

“The cost of the project was estimated in 2006,” Astbury said. “Since it has federal money, the regulations are different. I don’t think it’s as huge a project as it’s made out to be.”

Asked whether declining the federal grant would make a difference, Astbury said the town would still be obligated to meet certain standards for sidewalks. He said road construction projects in town have always assumed the town has a right of way that extends 33 feet from the centerline of all town roads. Under the federal guidelines, the project would be required to produce surveys and documented rights of way.

At their weekly meeting last Friday, selectmen voted 3-0 to authorize Astbury to prepare a cost estimate for the project if were taken on by the town without benefit of the federal grant.

“Next week, we’ll decide whether we want anything to do with the grant or do it on our own,” Schatz said after the meeting.

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