BANGOR, Maine — As the region’s center for everything from health care and education to shopping and professional services, Bangor is seeing increasing volumes of traffic.
That trend has not gone unnoticed by residents who have to cope with the increase or by motorists trying to navigate streets that are becoming more and more congested.
During a regular meeting Monday night at City Hall, councilors voted 6-2 to adopt a traffic calming policy that supporters say will bring some consistency in the way the city responds to complaints and concerns.
The councilors’ desire for a policy that would address traffic management on Bangor’s residential streets was among the issues they said they wanted to tackle during their annual planning session in January, according to City Manager Edward Barrett.
In a background memorandum he prepared for councilors, Barrett said the policy aims to improve the quality of life in residential neighborhoods that are affected adversely by high volumes of through traffic.
Simply put, the policy governs the installation of traffic islands, raised crosswalks and other mechanisms for getting motorists to slow down or use alternate routes.
Because that approach proved controversial when city officials agreed to try it on Howard Street, the new policy requires support from at least half of the households from an affected street or neighborhood before such traffic calming measures are put in place. It requires residents’ involvement in the decision-making process, primarily through public hearings and questionnaires.
Councilors who voted in favor of the traffic calming policy were Chairwoman Susan Hawes, Frank Farrington, Geoffrey Gratwick, Gerry Palmer, Richard Stone and Hal Wheeler. Those who opposed it were Patricia Blanchette and Peter D’Errico.
“I oppose this ordinance because once again I don’t see any proof that we have a problem,” Blanchette said during Monday’s meeting.
“We’ve been directing traffic in this city in one form or another — whether it was horseback or buggies — since we were incorporated,” she said, adding, “I have not seen any problem with traffic problems not being addressed when they were referred to the proper department.” In most cases, she said, councilors and others who have asked city staff to look into a problem area have received a response within hours, though she acknowledged the answer might not have been the one they wanted.
“If I thought I had a problem with traffic calming problems in this city I would be in support of this, but I don’t. … I don’t see what putting this [policy into effect] is going to do to help the traffic problems that occur within Bangor,” she said.
“And I’ll tell you my biggest nightmare,” Blanchette said. “The worst traffic problem I can imagine is no traffic, because [without traffic] you are looking at a town that is dying.”
Gratwick, who leads the committee that reviewed the policy developed by staff, disagreed.
“I think it’s a very good step to try to reclaim our streets from speeding automobiles,” he said.
“The whole concept of traffic calming refers to that way that you get people to drive slower through neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s a very specific set of policies that are used now widely throughout the country [that aim to bring back] a neighborhood quality to a residential part of a city.
He said the policy will help guide staff as they delve into the issue of “which streets, which neighborhoods should we slow down and the standards we have to go through.
“I think we have a good operating plan,” he said, adding that the policy remains a work in progress and likely will evolve to reflect the city’s changing traffic patterns.
As Gratwick saw it, such a policy could have helped the city head off the controversy over recent traffic calming measures on Howard Street, steps that were implemented after several years of discussions and debate.
A ban on left turns from State Street to Howard Street proved so unpopular that earlier this summer a group of residents gathered the more than 2,000 signatures of registered Bangor voters needed to get a referendum question aimed at repealing the ban on the city’s November ballot.
“Howard Street and the whole traffic problem there has really taken an inordinate amount of time from City Council, city staff, and the citizens. It was not our finest day how we dealt with the question.”
Police Chief Ron Gastia is among the city officials who agree Bangor has a traffic problem on its hands.
The speed and driving habits of motorists traveling in and through Bangor prompted Gastia to launch a campaign earlier this year aimed at getting drivers to slow down and follow motor vehicle laws.
Though his department is charged only with enforcing traffic laws, he said the new traffic calming policy will complement the enforcement effort, which he acknowledges yields only short-term results, by adding physical impediments to speeders and scofflaws that likely will have longer-term benefits.