Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Plan calls for wider, safer I-295

Portland Press Herald

It's the 'wider' that's getting attention; critics say that's incompatible with energy conservation.

January 30, 2008

MEETING NOTE: THE MAINE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION will hold a public meeting at Portland City Hall tonight on the draft report of the I-295 Corridor Study. The meeting will run from 7 to 9 p.m. in the State of Maine Room.

Years in the making, a multimillion-dollar proposal to improve Interstate 295 calls for making exits and entrance ramps safer, reworking key interchanges and possibly widening the highway through South Portland, Portland and the suburbs to the north.

The I-295 Corridor Study, still in draft form, provides recommendations for ensuring safe and efficient travel on the busy stretch of highway from Scarborough to Brunswick over the next 20 years. Some of its recommendations, such as widening parts of the highway from four lanes to six, would be carried out six to 20 years in the future, if at all.

Still, the study already is drawing criticism.

Instead of adding pavement to accommodate more vehicles and generate more pollution, more should be done to promote public transportation, say community and environmental activists.

"This study is coming out with a bias toward single-occupancy vehicles," said Alec Maybarduk, a field organizer for The League of Young Voters, a Portland-based political action group.

The Maine Department of Transportation plans an informational meeting on the report at Portland City Hall tonight, and public comment is invited. "We'll certainly listen to everything people have to say," said Ed Hanscom, project manager for the study.

He said the study does account for public transportation, such as commuter rail north of Portland and rapid transit bus service. He noted that plans to widen I-295 are long-term, and said the study acknowledges that as alternative transportation comes into being, it may take enough vehicles off I-295 to help make widening unnecessary.

Half of tonight's meeting will be devoted to a study that the DOT is just starting, to look at rail and bus service opportunities between Portland and Brunswick, and Portland and Auburn, said David Willauer, planning director for the Greater Portland Council of Governments, which organized the meeting.

Willauer said public comment will be welcomed on the two-year Portland North Alternative Transportation Study, which officials hope will lead to a federal grant for alternative transportation.

Public feedback on the draft I-295 Corridor Study will be considered as a final report is prepared, said Hanscom, who couldn't predict exactly when the report will be finished.

The DOT began studying I-295 in 2000 at the direction of the Maine Legislature, which was concerned about the increasing traffic on the road, much of which was built in the 1950s and 1960s.

I-295 runs today from Scarborough to West Gardiner. Its busiest stretch is in South Portland and Portland, where 75,000 to 85,000 vehicles are on the highway each day. About 50,000 travel between Falmouth and Brunswick each day.

Over the next 20 years, traffic is expected to increase 20 percent, according to the I-295 Corridor Study, which began in 2004.

There has been a series of public meetings on the study, Hanscom said. Two were held in November: one in Brunswick and one in Yarmouth. The meeting in Brunswick was attended only by town officials, Willauer said, and the one in Yarmouth drew about 20 people.

He said most people at the Yarmouth meeting were interested in the study's recommendation for southbound Exit 15 in Yarmouth, where accidents have occurred. The study recommends spending $5 million to realign the entrance ramp with the highway and extend it to make it safer.

The study recommends both short- and long-term fixes to the highway.

Exit 15 is seen as one of the short-term improvements, which Hanscom said are less costly and could be completed within one to six years with $18 million in federal and state funding already secured.

Other short-term improvements would add lanes at exits where traffic backs up at rush hour. For example, ramps would be widened at Franklin Arterial in Portland. There also is a plan to reconfigure the ramps in both directions on Forest Avenue, so drivers no longer would have to merge immediately into traffic.

Another short-term project would be to spend $1 million to increase the number of electronic message boards on the highway, to redirect drivers in case of accidents.

Hanscom said funds have yet to be secured for long-term recommendations in the study. However, the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Committee has included adding lanes to I-295 high on a list of projects that could be funded with $50 million in federal money that Maine is likely to receive in 2009.

Long-term projects include a $35 million upgrade of Exit 11 in Falmouth to connect I-295 and the Maine Turnpike via the Maine Turnpike spur.

The most controversial long-term project would widen the highway from four lanes to six from Exit 2 in South Portland to Exit 9 in Portland, at a cost of $50 million, and from Exit 11 in Falmouth to Exit 15 in Yarmouth, at a cost of $18 million.

Hanscom said those are the most congested parts of the highway.

Christian McNeil, vice chairman of Portland's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, who plans to attend tonight's meeting, said it is "irresponsible" to spend money that's needed to repair the state's existing roads and bridges on a few miles of I-295.

He proposes discontinuing I-295 through the center of Portland and converting that part of the highway to a 25-mph boulevard that is friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists. "I just don't think it makes sense to have it go through downtown Portland," he said.

Beth Nagusky, energy and climate director for GrowSmart Maine, a Yarmouth-based nonprofit, also plans to speak at tonight's meeting.

Among GrowSmart's concerns, Nagusky said, is that the I-295 Corridor Study and the Portland North Alternative Transportation Study are separate when they should be connected. "It's the same issue," she said.

Nagusky also plans to object to the widening proposals. "Adding road capacity is a major step backward" for climate goals that Maine set earlier in this decade to reduce greenhouse gases, she said. "You can't talk about climate change without reducing how much we drive."

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791-6367 or at:

Copyright © 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers

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