Even before a gaping hole dangerously opened Feb. 15 on a curve of the well-traveled portion of Old County Road between Rockland and Rockport, Midcoast municipalities had been preoccupied with deteriorating roads.

Over the past several years, copious rainstorms have eroded area roadbeds from Washington to Camden to Waldoboro, and local taxpayers have been hit with unanticipated repair costs. A few thousand spent on this road, a few thousand spent on that road adds up, and one development we can count on is yet another weather system that will contribute to washouts.

Beyond the clouds lies the general deterioration of our road system. Many of the roads have evolved from old cow and horse paths, or even ancient Indian paths, well-worn and strategic. Over the centuries they have been widened, filled, and more recently, paved. Many were never properly engineered to begin with; the well-worn Route 52, for example, is a road that earned notoriety for its poor condition and even drew Gov. John Baldacci for a rousing town hall type meeting in Lincolnville where local citizens shouted loudly for Augusta to help.

The Midcoast does not have a public transportation system and residents commute in their own vehicles every morning to work, sometimes traveling 30, 40, 50 miles each way. A report issued last summer by the Maine Development Foundation, the nonprofit organization created in 1978 by state government to promote the economy, said Maine’s transportation infrastructure has fallen into deep disrepair, putting the state’s economy and quality of life at risk. The state needs to invest $300 million a year for 10 years to get its roads and bridges up to par.

With today’s economy, we do not hold out much hope for that, but there is money still flowing for transportation purposes from the federal government. The challenge lies in directing it from Washington, D.C., to local roads. By the end of 2009, Maine had spent $617 million of money appropriated to it through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The state anticipates a total of $1.2 billion in total to flow to the state. In Knox County, the largest infrastructure awards have been $2 million for replacing the South Thomaston bridge, $2.3 million to Aqua Maine Inc., and $7.4 million for the Governor Curtis ferry replacement. The majority of the rest of the money directed to Knox County has gone to schools, but other counties and cities have tapped grants for road improvements.

Mainers are aware that the vagaries of weather compound the wear and tear on roads, but so do politics. If local citizens want to their roads cared for and improved, the effort will lie in not just funding local public works budgets for road repairs at town meetings or in city council votes. It will take much advocating before state and federal representatives for them to appropriate money to more than just rail, new ferries or the larger highways of Southern Maine.

The state of our roads is no joke, and the yawning hole on Old County Road is yet one more example of infrastructure that will need immediate attention.

As the Maine Development Foundation said in July, since 2007 the declining condition of Maine’s highways has grown in magnitude, endangering the public. Approximately 200 people die in automobile crashes in Maine every year, and roughly one-third of those accidents may be due to poor or antiquated road design, the report said.

In Knox, Waldo and Lincoln counties, many roads are classified as rural, meaning they are at the bottom of the barrel for funding. From a civil engineering perspective, they are also the worst, having never been constructed to modern standards, and they are constantly battered by drainage problems, not to mention winter freezes and spring thaws. Roads get posted, residents have lengthy detours, and business slows.

The Old County Road sinkhole is a symptom of a larger state and regional problem that will only get worse if we do not pay attention to how our tax dollars are allocated in state and federal meeting rooms. Improving the country’s transportation infrastructure is a national goal. Let’s also make it a regional goal.