Funding OK’d for $2.9 million Height of Land project

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LETTER D TOWNSHIP — Reconstruction work could finally begin in July on one of Maine’s most spectacular overlooks: Height of Land on Route 17 between Byron and Oquossoc.

Federal highway money has already been approved for the $2.9 million project, but Maine transportation officials are still waiting for the money to arrive before putting it out to bid, Mark Latti, Maine Department of Transportation spokesman, said on Friday afternoon in Augusta.

“This project is all engineered and ready to go,” Latti said of work completed in 2006, when the project was supposed to be done.

“It got designed, be we never had enough money to build it,” Mark Hume, MDOT Region 3 engineer, said in Augusta.

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Hume said the project involves blasting ledge to the east of the existing road and moving the new road into that side-hill area.

Most of the current road, which offers stunning panoramic views of Mooselookmeguntic Lake, distant lakes and mountains in all seasons and sunsets, would become the scenic turnout area.

“We’re turning the old road into the turnout, but it’s not going to be a ‘pull over wherever you want’ area,” Hume said, referring to current parking methods.

Both the old and new roads will also be separated. Additionally, the new road’s shoulders will be paved instead of being gravel like they are along the current road, Hume said.

The job also involves reconstructing just over a mile of road.

“The longer we have to wait for the funding, the better the chances are that it will not be done this year,” Hume said.

When the money is transferred, Latti said MDOT will advertise for a contractor, which takes three weeks. Once the winning bid is chosen, another three weeks are spent making sure the winning bid meets all the criteria.

“So, after six weeks, the work could probably begin right after that, which would be in mid to late July if the money becomes available,” Latti said.

The project was supposed to be completed four years ago.

“In 2006, everything was all set and we were assured the money that year, but it was also the beginning of a steel boom and all of a sudden, prices went through the roof, and a lot of our projects got canceled,” Latti said.

That year, the project received federal Scenic Byway funding to engineer and design 1.1 miles of the corridor and a scenic turnout, according to a May 15, 2009, letter from Sen. Olympia J. Snowe to members of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Subcommittee on Transportation.

In lobbying for project funding in the Fiscal Year 2010 budget, Snowe wrote that the $3 million project would “create 105 new construction jobs in one of Maine’s more economically distressed areas: Rumford, Mexico, Carthage, Madrid and Dixfield, and Franklin County.”

Congressman Mike Michaud, who also lobbied for 2010 funding, wrote on his website, “The $3.2 million Height of Land Economic Stimulus project could create good-paying jobs, increase tourism in western Maine, connect three Scenic Byways and three premier recreation/ski resorts, improve safety, and protect a lake and watershed.”

The new roadwork will also finally fix a section of Route 17 that regularly washes out, filling tributaries with silt and pollutants that get into Mooselookmeguntic Lake and the larger watershed.

“In the process, it will provide safe vehicular and pedestrian access to a stunning and awe-inspiring view,” Snowe said.

Hume said the work is designed so that it would have as minimal impact as possible to the Appalachian Trail which crosses Route 17 at the overlook.

tkarkos@sunjournal.com

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