About 100 people attended an informational meeting with the Maine Department of Transportation on Thursday, Oct. 5 to discuss Wiscasset’s downtown traffic improvement project, which does not sit well with many residents and businesses in town.
Wiscasset Town Manager Marian Anderson opened the meeting by asking everyone to introduce themselves to the people on their left, on their right, and behind them. “Now that we all know each other, we can proceed with the meeting,” she said.
The DOT’s plan to eliminate parking on Main Street and demolish Haggett’s Garage met with strong opposition from many people at the meeting.
The meeting was scheduled from 6-8 p.m., with the first 90 minutes devoted to DOT outlining the design of the project, which includes traffic signals at the intersections of Main Street with Middle Street and Water Street, pedestrian crossings, landscaping amenities, and parking changes.
Attendees were given electronic devices to vote on amenities for the downtown. A resident asked DOT Project Manager Ernie Martin to allow public comment before the voting, but Martin said he wanted to stay within the agenda of the meeting.
The amenities include the type of trees to be planted on Main Street, benches, railings, lampposts, signage, and more.
When the meeting was opened for public comment, Wiscasset resident Mark Swartz said the elimination of parking on Main Street would be the end of businesses downtown. “Why would we support a project that would do that?” he said. “We need help. Who do we go to for help?”
State Sen. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, said he and state Rep. Jeff Hanley, R-Pittston, have introduced legislation to slow the progress of the project in its current form, known as Option 2.
Dow received a loud round of applause when he said, “I am not in favor of eliminating parking on Main Street. To do so would mean Wiscasset would be shooting itself in the foot.”
Dow said he does not know if the Legislature will consider the bill in the special session beginning Oct. 23.
The Legislative Council, which consists of 10 members of legislative leadership, must approve requests to introduce legislation in a special session. The Maine Constitution limits the types of bills the Legislature can consider in a special session to “emergency” legislation and a few other categories.
“If the bill progresses to the full Legislature, people can offer testimony either for or against the project and the project can be revisited,” Dow said.
Kim Dolce said each parking space is worth $25,000 to a business. “You are taking 58 parking spaces away from the businesses in Wiscasset,” she said.
Westport Island resident Joe Donahue said Wiscasset voters approved Option 2 instead of Option 1 or Option 3, and he thinks the plan should move forward.
Martin said the traffic problem in Wiscasset goes beyond the boundaries of Wiscasset.
Wiscasset resident Pam Logan asked Martin to consider eliminating parking on Main Street for a brief period of time to see how it would work out.
Keith Oehmig said the elimination of parking on Main Street would not affect Red’s Eats, Sarah’s Cafe, and Sprague’s Lobster, but would affect 26 other businesses in town.
Seaver Leslie, a member of Citizens for Sensible Solutions, asked the DOT to reconsider the demolition of Haggett’s Garage and to open talks on how to save parking on Main Street.
The DOT plan calls for the construction of parking lots on Railroad Avenue and on Water Street on the site of Haggett’s Garage to replace the parking on Main Street.
Anne Leslie also asked the DOT to save Haggett’s Garage because it is part of Wiscasset’s history.
At the end of the hearing, there were still many people wanting to speak. Martin told the group he would take their comments back to Augusta, but he does not have the authority to make any of the changes they are requesting.
DOT Creative Services Director Meg Lane spoke briefly on the services her office provides to businesses affected by DOT construction.
Martin presented the project timeline. A final public hearing on the design will take place in January 2018, the DOT will open bids in March 2018, construction will begin in April 2018, construction will break for the summer from June-September 2018, and the completion date is June 2019.
Martin thanked the members of the town’s advisory committee for their input. In response to a question about whether the DOT is going to move forward with the project, he said, “Yes.”