Following decades of engineering studies, meetings, and failed proposals, the Maine Department of Transportation has released two new design concepts to reduce traffic congestion in Wiscasset; the DOT hopes to move forward with one by 2017.
More than 100 town and area residents filled the Wiscasset Community Center gymnasium March 8 to see the DOT’s virtual restructuring of downtown Wiscasset.
The designs presented focused on the roads, sidewalks, and parking areas surrounding the intersections of Main Street (Route 1) with Water Street and Middle Street.
DOT Traffic Engineer Stephen Landry, Head of Transportation Analysis Edward Hanscom, Bicycle and Pedestrian Program Manager Patrick Adams, and Project Manager Gerry Audibert presented three options to attendees.
Wiscasset voters will be asked which option they support in a non-binding referendum vote in June. The Wiscasset Board of Selectmen is expected to make the final decision on which design to greenlight after residents cast their vote.
The DOT hopes to complete the design phase and begin construction on the project in 2017.
The DOT examined 30 different scenarios for downtown Wiscasset before zeroing in on the three options presented. The third proposal for Wiscasset is to do nothing, Audibert said.
The designs for the remaining two options include several of the same features. Both involve the installation of traffic and pedestrian lights at Main Street’s intersections with Water Street and Middle Street.
Sidewalk extensions, or bump-outs, would be created at the intersections to reduce pedestrian crossing times. A new sidewalk would be constructed alongside Red’s Eats with bollards installed to separate customers from passing pedestrians.
In both designs, Railroad Avenue would be transformed into a one-way street with 18 on-street parking spaces. In addition, a parking lot with the capacity to hold 26 vehicles and two buses would be constructed at the end of the avenue. The town wharf would also be reconfigured to create 20 additional parking spaces.
Bollards would be installed on the curbs alongside Sarah’s Cafe and Red’s Eats to prevent jaywalking. Southbound traffic would be discouraged from making a left-hand turn onto Water Street and would instead be directed to Middle Street to reach the waterfront.
The two designs differed significantly when it came to parking on Main Street between Middle and Water streets. In the first option, eight parking spaces would be eliminated due to the sidewalk expansion, and parked cars would have less room to back into moving traffic.
The first option also involves moving the Main Street travel lanes several feet toward Sarah’s Cafe.
The second option is strongly recommended by DOT. It involves eliminating parking on Main Street between the two remodeled intersections. To replace the eliminated parking, DOT would purchase Coastal Enterprises Inc.’s property at 36 Water St., demolish it, and create a 29-space parking lot in its place.
The parking lot would include benches and an informational kiosk. Bollards would line the enlarged sidewalks on Main Street, which would have space for benches, bike racks, trash receptacles, and cafe tables in option two.
More than two dozen residents lined up to ask questions following the presentation, including CEI Senior Vice President of Research and Policy Carla Dickstein and Midcoast Conservancy Executive Director Jody Jones. Midcoast Conservancy is the current tenant of 36 Water St.
“I was skeptical of a parking lot in our building,” Dickstein said. “It didn’t seem like the best use, but I see the logic. I’m interested to see how this plays out.”
After decades of discussion and proposals, residents expressed similar skepticism about the potential success of any proposal. Despite hesitations, many residents said they felt the designs were promising, appreciated their beautification aspect, and thanked DOT officials for continuing to work on the long-standing problem.
Traffic congestion in Wiscasset is a regional issue that impacts not only Wiscasset residents and businesses, but also the entire Midcoast, Audibert said. After years of exploring a bypass, which was “painful,” the DOT determined the project was untenable given the limited time frame traffic congestion is an issue, he said.
The DOT is instead pursuing smaller projects at key intersections in Wiscasset, Audibert said. Improvements to the intersection of Route 1 with Route 144 and Birch Point Road, in addition to the installation of a traffic light at the Route 27 and Route 1 intersection, are current DOT projects in the works in Wiscasset.
Traffic lights were a source of concern for several residents; one resident said past efforts to install them downtown were “disastrous.” In 2001, the DOT tested traffic signals and one-way streets downtown, Hanscom said. The traffic signals had three phases to regulate traffic flow, were visibly temporary, and were removed after three months, Hanscom said.
The three-phase traffic lights proved to be an issue, Hanscom said. The traffic signals to be installed will be permanent, have only two phases, and will be synchronized with each other for both vehicle and pedestrian traffic.
The traffic lights will help “vehicles and pedestrians co-exist,” Hanscom said. Many residents pinpointed pedestrian traffic as the cause of the bottleneck in downtown Wiscasset.
Some residents were also concerned the designs would overwhelm Water and Middle streets with traffic. Prohibiting southbound traffic from making a left-hand turn onto Water Street will increase the through traffic on Middle Street, DOT officials said.
The DOT estimates the design phase and construction will cost between $4 million and $5 million, but had no estimate for the cost of maintenance. An agreement between the DOT and Wiscasset will outline the responsibility of each entity in the project, including future maintenance, if it moves forward.
An open house about the design options is scheduled for April, followed by a public hearing in May. “This is the first of many meetings,” Wiscasset Board of Selectmen Chairman Ben Rines said.
A video outlining the design proposals for Wiscasset will be made available at mainedot.gov.