Height of Land project completion waits for MDOT funding

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Photo by Rebecca Kurtz

RANGELEY – The view at Height of Land seems to stretch forever.

Considered one of New England’s most beautiful vistas, Mooselookmeguntic, Cupsuptic and Richardson lakes stretch out before the viewer in circular blue shapes. Emerald green forests surround and islands punctuate the massive lakes to provide an eagle’s view of scenic wonder.

A wonder that, thanks to a dedicated group of nature lovers, will be conserved forever after a 500-acre land acquisition was secured last December. The parcel includes and surrounds the viewing area at Height of Land on the Rangeley Scenic Byway along Route 17.

With the campaign to raise the $1.2 million for the parcel nearing the halfway point, the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust is working hard on getting the balanced raised by the end of 2009. The 500 acres includes the eastern shore of Mooselookmeguntic up to Route 17 and continues to the other side of the road and up Spruce Mountain.

“The acquisition ensures there will not be development and preserves the view forever,” said Rebecca Kurtz, the heritage trust’s program coordinator for the Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway project.

More good news came this week when Maine Congressman Michael Michaud announced the Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway would receive $270,762 from the Federal Highway Administration. Among six scenic byway projects in Maine to receive federal funding, the Rangeley project includes constructing the overlook, parking area and walking path and installing a set of interpretive panels at the Height of Land. Currently, the overlook is little more than a rough turnout on the shoulder of Route 17.

The project also includes constructing defined entrances and exits, a designed parking area for both short-term viewing and longer-term day use and access to the nearby Appalachian Trail. It will allow travelers to park their vehicles, take in the stunning view, enjoy the interpretive panels and stretch their legs, according to Michaud’s office.

Kurtz noted that the engineering and site plan for the turnout and 1.1 mile stretch of road has been completed through a Scenic Byway grant awarded in 2001, which makes this a “ready to go” project.

Except for one problem – money to rebuild that 1.1 mile section of Route 17.

“We can’t build the overlook until the road can be reconstructed to accommodate it,” Kurtz said. “It has to be done at the same time.”

To rebuild a 1.1 mile section will cost $1.1 million in state funding, according to the state’s Department of Transportation. The Height of Land road project is currently listed on the state’s six-year budget plan, said Duane Scott, director of Maine’s transportation planning for the DOT.

Listed in the “B” category, the Route 17 road project will only move forward if funding becomes available, Scott said. “Even in normal (budget) times, it’s tough to keep up when the funding is being cut.”

But these aren’t normal budget times.

“There’s a tremendous amount of need statewide that has far surpassed federal and state resources,” Scott said. “Which makes funding extremely difficult.” He estimated only 50 percent of the state’s road construction needs are being met. All of the projects are prioritized based on need. Need can include many factors, such as a road’s general condition, which Kurtz and Scott both agree Route 17 at Height of Land needs complete reconstruction.

But other factors come into play when determining which projects get funded, such as if it’s the only road in or out, which Route 17 isn’t with Route 4 an option to the east. Traffic count is another, and Scott said it’s comparatively minimal at Height of Land.

Added to that are the political pressures to fund projects, such as the recent rush to focus on bridge safety following a tragic collapse of a Minneapolis bridge.

“Resources are in such limited quantities,” Scott said. The next two-year DOT budget cycle, which Scott is currently working on is for fiscal 2010-2011, which goes to the Legislature’s Transportation Committee this spring.

Scott agreed the road construction and overlook should be done at the same time not only for efficiency’s sake but to ensure an interface of engineering occurs between the road and the overlook.

Although Kurtz worries that the federal funding might be yanked while the project waits for state funding, Scott said he didn’t believe there was a shelf life to the federally earmarked funding for the project.

All of the pieces the trust has put together – the land, the road and overlook engineering work and the overlook construction project grant award are all good news in terms of future state funding.

“It does allow us to create a better case in trying to attract funding,” Scott said. “Using the scenic byways funding will provide leverage for future funding.” Just when state funding will come available is anybody’s guess.

“So the final piece of the puzzle is MDOT and its ability to increase the priority of this project,” Kurtz said. “We are hopeful that MDOT will do this, especially since the project is “ready to go” (the engineering has been completed) and MDOT’s investment in the turnout will be protected forever throught the conservation afforded by the Trust.”

She points out that the project’s completion would dramatically improve safety while enhancing the local economy. “The improved road and stunning turnout could be marketed to visitors and potential visitors. At the same time, completion of the road improvements and turnout would tie the Scenic Byway Corridor to a series of traveler itinerary loops that connect two State Scenic Byways and a National Scenic Byway. Itinerary-based travelers usually require overnight accommodations, meals, and they usually make commemorative purchases in local stores. Thus the completion of this project will have far-reaching effects,” Kurtz said. 

Meanwhile, the trust is full steam ahead on its Height of Land fundraising campaign and hopes to reach its goal of $1.2M by the end of 2009. Those wishing to help out with the campaign, can contact Nancy Perlson, executive director of the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust, nperlson@rlht.org 207-864-7311 ext 2, or send donations to: Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust, PO Box 249, Oquossoc, ME 04964.


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