ROCKLAND, Maine — When Annie Gagne wants to cross Main Street, she pays extra close attention. The teenager knows from experience that the traffic zooming by on U.S. Route 1 doesn’t always stop for pedestrians, even when they’re in the crosswalks.
“You definitely have to wait for a car to come to a complete stop, because you never know,” Gagne, 15, of Rockland said Tuesday afternoon.
Once, she was in the middle of the two-lane road when a car zipped past her in the other lane, much too close for comfort.
“It was scary,” she recalled.
That’s why she was glad to hear that city officials are trying to make Main Street safer for pedestrians.
Starting this fall, the city will install seven new crosswalks on Main Street that will be more visible than the zebra-striped crossings that are there now. The crosswalks at Lindsey Street and Talbot Avenue also will be slightly elevated to force vehicles to slow down, something like a modified speed bump, according to Rockland Community Development Director Rodney Lynch.
All too often, vehicles traveling along Main Street have hit pedestrians, according to Police Chief Bruce Boucher, who singled out the intersection of Main and Park streets as the most worrisome.
The combination of cars parked on both sides of the road, out-of-state drivers unfamiliar with the route and plenty of pedestrians can mean trouble, he said.
Figures from the Maine Department of Transportation show that the city of Rockland has had 38 pedestrian accidents over the last decade, or about 3.5 crashes each year. Of those, one was a fatality and 25 resulted in incapacitating or “evident” injuries. Not all of those accidents occurred along the Main Street corridor, a DOT official said.
“It’s always a concern, especially in the summertime,” Boucher said of pedestrian safety on Main Street. “It’s very congested down there. It’s a responsibility of both drivers and pedestrians to be careful.”
Bangor Daily News archives show several pedestrian accidents on Main Street over the past 20 years, including a Tenants Harbor woman who was struck by a car and had her ankle broken in 2009 when she crossed the road outside of a marked crosswalk and a 10-year-old girl in the crosswalk who suffered minor injuries in 1993 when she was hit by a car.
Lynch, who has been working on the city’s comprehensive downtown revitalization and improvement plans for several years, said that merchants and others have been very concerned about the “unsafe” conditions in Rockland.
“It’s Route 1, and it’s two-lane traffic. It’s almost a racetrack down there,” Lynch said Monday. “In downtown Rockland, you’re taking your chances. There are a lot of close calls.”
He said that the city just put the project out to bid, so he doesn’t know how much it will cost yet, but officials anticipate that the construction on the new granite-and-brick crosswalks will take at least nine months and will begin this fall.
Rockland has received a $600,000 Community Development Block Grant to help pay for these downtown streetscape and pedestrian improvements, which will also include planting trees, relocating light poles and making sure the sidewalks are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
“What we’re doing is making it more pedestrian oriented,” Lynch said.
“Right now, when you cross Main Street, the orientation is toward vehicles. You do have to have a balance.”
That balance between traffic flow and pedestrian safety is an important one across the state, Dan Stewart of the Maine Department of Transportation, said Tuesday.
On average, one pedestrian is hit by a car per day in Maine, and 5.41 percent of all car accident fatalities involve pedestrians, said Stewart, the bicycle and pedestrian manager for the state’s Quality Community Program.
“Pedestrians are very vulnerable,” he said.
His program is able to fund an average of $8 million in bicycle and pedestrian safety projects every two years, and provided $163,000 to Rockland.
This July, 45 Maine communities requested a total of $30 million for safety projects.
“It’s very competitive. There are a lot of needs out there,” he said. “Pedestrian safety in Rockland is an important priority, relative to other state needs — Rockland is a very thriving community, with a vibrant downtown and a lot of pedestrians. And it’s amazing what these improvements to the pedestrian environment can do to the community.”
For Frank Isganitis, chairman of the Rockland Economic Development Advisory Committee, those improvements — and efforts to educate the public about crosswalk usage — can’t come soon enough. It’s dangerous downtown for both pedestrians and drivers, he said.
“I’ve been a pedestrian where people have ignored what they’re supposed to do,” he said. “When I’ve been a driver, I’ve literally had people walk out toward my car. If I hadn’t been able to swerve into the other lane, I would have hit them.”
Although pedestrians have the right-of-way in crosswalks which aren’t regulated by traffic lights, they do not have the right-of-way in those that are, he and Police Chief Boucher said.
“If a pedestrian entered against the lights, they’re in violation,” Boucher said.
Isganitis said that he hopes the raised, more visible crosswalks will do the trick of both calming traffic and letting drivers know where the crosswalks are.
“I think we put a lot of time into coming up with a plan that we think will work,” he said. “We’re shooting at a moving target.”
Annie Gagne said that she would like to tell drivers to be more aware of pedestrians like her.
“Just keep in mind that there are all kinds of people everywhere,” she said. “They should just slow down and be careful.”