[Coldbrook Rd along US 1A/ME 9 in Hampden, with a node marker on the stop sign.]
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General Information about Maine State Highways

[Return to RoadsAroundME] Like every state, Maine has its own idiosyncrasies about signage, designation and construction which may be unfamiliar to the casual roadgeek. This introduction to Maine highways is not intended to be exhaustive, but to give the casual and hardcore highway researcher alike a perspective and understanding of the scope, nature and history of the Maine state highway system.

A basic understanding of the terminology of highways is assumed. If you're new to roadgeek jargon, we suggest looking at the Roadgap Glossary first for a brief crash course in standard highway parlance.


A Brief History of Maine Highways

A significant portion of this early history of Maine roads is summarized from MDOT's "A History of Maine Roads" 1600-1970 (with 1995 addendum), and grateful acknowledgement is paid to the staff of the MDOT Communications Office for making it available.

Early Roads in Maine

As with any New England state, roads have been an important part of Maine since the colonial days (when it was still part of Massachusetts), although none in those days were organized on any intercommunity scope. Early "mastways" were constructed heading out from outputs and trade centers to harvest the local firs and spruces which were prized as masts by the Royal Navy. In Portland, these mastways later became many of the modern streets down to the Fore River; in Freeport, the village square is so constructed to allow room to manipulate the large logs on their journey to Mast Landing.

Probably Maine's first public work road, and arguably the first paved roads in the nation, were the streets of Pemaquid. A well-established port by the mid 1600s, the paved streets ran from the wharves to the surrounding fields covered with smaller central stones, becoming larger on the shoulders, with an 11.5' carriageway and stonework gutters. Roughly a half mile of paved streets were constructed through the settlement, but they never extended inland towards other settlements; after Pemaquid was repeatedly sacked by the Indians and eventually abandoned with the decommissioning of Fort Frederick in 1759, the town and its public works were eventually buried and remained unremembered until historical excavation starting in the 1920s and proceeding to the present day uncovered its foundations.

Reflecting the comparatively poor state of transportation in those days, travel from Massachusetts to its northern component was difficult in general and few roads of any sort proceeded north from Kittery (Ketterie). Frustrated with the deplorable condition of local highways in the northern province, and being unable to proceed any further north than Wells, a possibly apocryphal story states the commissioners were so unhappy that they issued an edict to the residents of the Saco-Wells region to "make sufficient roads within their town so that travelers could move from house to house" or they would be fined. The response was undoubtedly hostile, but nevertheless the first section of Maine's shore road was staked out in 1653, named the "Kennebunk Road by the Sea." Grandiosely named the King's Highway and running from Kittery to Portland (then so-called "Falmouth"), the road was little more than a horse path and cartwheel ruts with no bridges of any sort for local waterways (which were forded at low tide, or crossed via ferry). Nevertheless, cart and horse traffic steadily grew in volume enough to facilitate an "Upper King's Road" to serve York, Wells, Kennebunk and Saco. The road was subsequently improved by Benjamin Franklin, who as colonial postmaster used the highway for his weekly mail delivery service (giving it the name "Post Road"); placing granite milestones on the post roads leaving Boston, Maine would get its own set between Kittery and Portland in 1760. Significant sections of the King's Hwy are today part or near modern US 1 and US 1A.

After the American Revolution, however, conditions failed to improve and a variety of turnpike companies sprang up to cash in on the increasing stagecoach traffic. When Maine achieved statehood in 1820, it inherited five turnpikes from Massachusetts, namely the First Cumberland Tpk across West Scarborough, the Bath Bridge and Turnpike over the New Meadows River; the Wiscasset-Augusta Tpk; the Wiscasset-Day's Ferry Tpk; and the Camden Tpk (from Lincolnville to Camden). No doubt due to cost and slower land passages, water remained a far more frequent transportation modality than the roads and little, if any, improvement occurred during the 19th century -- in fact, one traveler commented on the "quivering old wooden toll bridge" over the Piscataqua, which despite being built 1821-2 was not replaced until 1923 with the US 1 Memorial Bridge. Most of the larger turnpikes had gone under after the rise of the railroads, which surpassed surface highways in total mileage by 1890.

The Dawn of the Automobile

By the dawn of the 20th century, Maine roads were widely considered a disaster. Where roads existed at all, they were uniformly dirt; as a result, when the weather was fair the railroad cars ran over capacity, and when it was not there was often no way to get goods to and from them at all, leading the railroads themselves to investigate farm-to-market roads to help redistribute their carrying profile. Worse, little attention had been paid to routing and construction, leading to roads hazardous not only due to weather but also their very path: a contemporary cycling guidebook observed bitterly that the Maine roads selected all the hills with "a persistency worthy of a better cause."

Particular urgency to improving the state road system came with the advent of Rural Free Delivery in 1893, which demanded gravel or macadam roads as a prerequisite for the service. In 1901, Governor John F. Hill declared in his inagural address the need for a state highway system and set in motion the first state expenditure to do so: "upon the request of the municipal officers of any town [read the law], the county commissioners ... shall designate that highway running through said town which in their judgment is the main thoroughfare, and said highway shall be known as a state road." Receiving around $3,000 in aid, twelve towns eventually applied for funds under the appropriation and built around 2.5 miles of road, leading to its expansion to $40,000 in 1903. Following that, the Motor Vehicle Division was founded by an act of legislature in 1904, with 715 automobiles registered and 898 licensed operators by 1905.

That same year, the office of Commissioner of Highways was officially created, with Paul D. Sargent its first officeholder. Sargent issued annual reports which were well-regarded for their detail and consideration to sound engineering at low cost. His initial 1905 report, citing a total of 25,530 miles of all classes in the state, observed that only 87 of them were paved in any manner (22 miles in granite block pavement and the rest macadam), and called significant attention to how to improve the large number of dirt miles that remained. In 1907, the legislature formed the State Highway Department to help facilitate his recommendations as traffic started to sharply transition from horse-drawn traffic to automotives, and also passed the first form of the state aid law similar to today's used for distribution of highway funds.

[Construction on Wells from the 1913 report.] In 1913, the State Highway Department was transformed into the three-man State Highway Commission, the direct ancestor of the modern Maine Department of Transportation, which was directly charged for the first time with the construction of "connected main highways throughout the state." Sargent became Chief Engineer, serving until 1928, with the Commission's first members being Lyman H. Nelson, Philip J. Deering and William M. Ayer. Growing from a twelve-person staff in 1913 to take over most of the unused rooms in the Legislature by the 1920s, the new Commission observed that the local construction scope of Hill's 1901 aid package led to a persistently poor state of intrastate links. A direct framework for acquisition of right-of-way and competitive bidding was established, along with bridge appropriations allowing for state assistance of bridges on main thoroughfares (also 1915), road patrols (starting in 1915 in Gray with two men on 12 miles, and expanded to 373 men on 3,379 miles just the next year), materials and engineering research through UMaine at Orono, and most critically access to Federal Aid dollars in 1917. From 1916 to 1920, Maine received $731,250, matched by mill and user taxes, further augmented by Maine's first highway and bridge bond issuance in 1919 -- $2 million of a total $8 million to be later released. (The mill tax was eventually suspended during the Depression and repealed by 1937.)

The Genesis: Maine's Lettered Routes and Pole Highways

[Schematic for road engineering from the 1913 report.] Part of the Maine State Highway Commission's work in 1913 was the classification of all roads in the state using three general categories: state highways (today's numbered highways), state-aid highways (which may or may not be numbered), and third-class highways (local roads, today known as townways). This classification is still used today.

The SHC let the individual townships choose their state-aid highways and nominate the roads they felt were important enough to merit additional funding, but for the interregional highways the 1913 report created 21 initial lettered highways (see Maine's Lettered Highways) and proposed three more which were eventually approved. This lettered system was the forerunner of the modern numbered highway system.

However, to the naive motorist, there was little obvious indication what was which, or even that particular highways were through routes. Signage, if it existed at all, was a function of whatever local jurisdictions determined was necessary.

The first major method of marking routes in New England came when Massachusetts convinced most of southern New England and New York to adopt their system of painted poles in 1915. Vermont and New Hampshire chose to continue their own methods instead, however, and Maine opted out entirely, presumably because it was not compatible with the lettered system. Nevertheless, pressure grew on the State Highway Commission to better indicate through routes for interregional and interstate travel, and in 1919 the State Highway Commission and the Maine Automobile Association started marking a number of the official state highways with their own pole colour system. Some of the first attempts at signage for particularly dangerous curves and intersections were also put up during this time. (Here is a partial list of Maine's Pole Highways and their approximate modern equivalents.)

The New England Interstate System in Maine

[New England Interstate shield.] Naturally, pole markings were a very suboptimal method of marking and tracking highways, and many of the embryonic highway departments of the day in addition to Maine's were looking for more expandable and maintainable tracking methods.

In 1922, the six New England states (as well as New York east of the Hudson River) developed the New England Interstate system to introduce a consistent numbering system between them. A full discussion of the New England Interstate numbering system is beyond the scope of this article, but in short, one- and two-digit routes operated as interstate routes starting with 1, and three-digit routes as intrastate starting with 100. Here is a discussion and a list of Maine's New England Interstate Highways, as well as the general Wikipedia entry.

[Original 1925 official state highway map.] After discussion over implementation and which routes would receive numbers, the Commission finally implemented the New England Interstate system in 1925 and started to sign their new highways with the NEI yellow and black shields shown at the right (the white border is for illustration and was not part of the sign). It was also in 1925 that Maine released their first official state highway map, with a full route log of all the designated highways including routings and termini.

The Maine Great Renumbering

The NEI system would not last long, however, as the national United States Numbered Highway System was introduced in wide scale just one year later in 1926. This required wholesale revision of the lower multi-state NEI route numbers since the two numbering systems were in general mutually incompatible for those NEI routes being promoted to US highways. Unlike other states, however, this did not provoke a large or parallel numbering shift in Maine as there were no collisions with state highway numbers, and as a result both the 100-and-up state route numbers and the new US highways continued to coexist along with those multi-state NEIs that had not been promoted (and remained state routes also).

In 1931, the SHC experimented with the first of its low numbered routes, a proposed extension to US Highway 4 in New Hampshire designated State Route 4 (ME 4), which was constructed out of multiple older alignments all the way from the New Hampshire state line to, as originally signed, Quebec. Although the extension to US 4 was never approved by AASHTO, the success of a single unified route number conducting traffic along this important corridor encouraged the SHC to expand the highway system to encompass additional complementary arterials.

To indicate their new importance to the state, these new interregional routes would use the lower numbers now vacated with the demise of the New England Interstates, which complemented the remaining multi-state NEIs that still survived as state routes. This process started in 1933 and rewrote considerable amounts of numbering, decommissioning or moving high numbers to new, shorter routings, and creating extensive routings for the new lower ones. Since many areas had only small amounts of functional alignment for a given routing, a number of these new highways were co-routed upon each other, yielding Maine's love affair with the multiplex. By 1934, a new, nearly totally transformed highway numbering system graced the official maps, along with new white state route livery bearing the new numbers.

The Maine Turnpike and the Interstates

[Original-style Interstate 95 shield, in Kittery.] With the advent of faster and greater numbers of cars, America started its gradual transition to larger controlled access highways for major arterials. Maine was no exception.

In 1941, the Maine Turnpike Authority was formed by the state legislature and tasked with the development of a high-speed routing to bypass the very congested US 1. Although World War II delayed initial development considerably, an initial bond was still issued in 1946 for construction of the first 45 miles between Kittery and Portland backed entirely by the unique strategy of 'revenue bonding' against toll receipts, ensuring no debt was assessed against the state, and accepting no federal monies. This first section was opened to traffic 13 December 1947, followed by the second leg to Augusta exactly eight years later in 1955 with a spur to US 1 at Falmouth. (For an expanded history of the Turnpike, see Interstate 95.)

With the inauguration of the Eisenhower Interstate System in 1956, Maine assigned Interstate 95 to the Turnpike through Portland, deviating along the spur up a new free routing to Augusta, Bangor, Houlton and the Canada/New Brunswick international border. Maine also designated several spurs, including Interstate 195 in Saco, completed 1983; Interstate 295 in Portland, completed 1974; and Interstate 395 in Bangor, completed 1986. For its part, Interstate 95 was completed in 1977 (fully Interstate grade in 1986), and the final Interstate number, Interstate 495, was designated over the remainder of the constructed Turnpike between Portland and Augusta in 1988. (See respective entries for additional history.)

As for the administration of the highways themselves, the State Highway Commission was reorganized into the new Maine Department of Transportation in 1972, retaining the SHC's original mission for highways and bridges, but also adding responsibilities for air, rail, public transportation and marine ports and transport, including the Maine State Ferry Service.

For various official and speculated reasons, MDOT decided with AASHTO approval to switch the numberings of I-95, I-295 and I-495 in 2004, along with a new distance/mile-based exit numbering system (using little yellow signage to indicate the old exit numbers, which still persists). This unified the entire Turnpike under one number (I-95) and extended I-295 north over the old I-95 routing to Augusta, using I-495 as the unsigned designation of the Falmouth Spur. (See Interstate 95.) This was the final major event in Maine's highway system to date, and yielded the modern numbering and breakdown motorists see in the Pine Tree State today.

Types of Routes and Roads

Federal Statistics

How are Maine's roads distributed? This breakdown includes not only numbered highways, but also locally maintained roads of significant importance whether or not they are official state routes. (Numbers in miles.)

The breakdown is based on the standard federal classification for roads, the Federal Highway Administration Functional Classification Guidelines.

Principal Arterial, Interstate 367
Principal Arterial, Other Freeways and Expressways 18
Principal Arterial, Other, Rural 787
Principal Arterial, Other, Urban 175
Minor Arterial, Rural 1,039
Minor Arterial, Urban 276
Collectors, Rural, Major 3,247
Collectors, Rural, Minor 2,229
Collectors, Urban 479
Local Roads, Rural 12,034
Local Roads, Urban 1,585
Total: 22,236
Source: MDOT internal data, 2006

State Road and Highway Types

(In the below section, legislative citations are given where appropriate and/or available.)

The Maine State Highway System is divided into three primary categories, the same as established in the original 1913 report by Nelson, Deering and Ayer:

Inventory Roads

Inventory roads are a separate category from state highways in Maine. Due to the wide number of local names for roads and due to the fact that those roads often make up plumb lines or boundaries for counties and municipalities in this day and age, MDOT uses a numerical system to refer to every publicly maintained road in the state, numbered highway or not. As a result, while every numbered state highway is necessarily an inventory road, the majority of inventory roads are not only not state highways but are usually not maintained by MDOT either.

Inventory roads have existed in some form since the creation of the State Highway Commission, but were not formalized until some time later. Although there is an internal document listing every single inventory road, MDOT discourages its use outside of the department since many of the roads completely lack names and are therefore useless without complete mapping to back them up. In the route log, inventory roads are sometimes used as a specified terminus. Inventory routes may also appear (with or without their number) on the AADT counts.

This should not be confused with the node markers used for law enforcement and local surveying, which are small green signs with white numbers typically posted at intersections. The stop sign at the top of this page has a node marker attached.

And a word from our author

Why is a guy from California writing a treatise on Maine highways? Well, I liked to roadgeek up there when I was visiting friends (mostly around Bangor which is why the photography tends to concentrate on that area), but I could never find many good references to consult to determine what was what. Necessity is therefore the mother of invention, or in this case, the small clump of ice that turns into a giant snowball that crushes your car and kills small children. In other words, what started as a small source of internal information turned into a big boondoggle and a massive collection of accumulated maps. But hey, it accomplished its original purpose, and it means I'll never run out of stuff to research. :-)

"Where To, Buddy?"

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All images, photographs and multimedia, unless otherwise stated, are copyright © 2005-2009 Cameron Kaiser. All rights reserved. All writeups are copyright © 2005-2009 Cameron Kaiser. All rights reserved. Unauthorized copying or duplication without express consent of the copyright holder is strictly prohibited. Please contact the sitemaster to request permission if you wish to use items from this page.

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