EDITORIALS

Bypassing Traffic Needs

The Memorial and Sarah Mildred Long bridges, two of the three bridges that link Maine to New Hampshire over the Piscataqua River, need renovation or replacement. The Interstate Route 95 Pascataqua River Bridge is in the foreground, the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge is in the middle and the Memorial Bridge is at the top.
Photo courtesy of the Maine Department of Transportation
The Memorial and Sarah Mildred Long bridges, two of the three bridges that link Maine to New Hampshire over the Piscataqua River, need renovation or replacement. The Interstate Route 95 Pascataqua River Bridge is in the foreground, the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge is in the middle and the Memorial Bridge is at the top.
Posted Aug. 05, 2011, at 8:50 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 05, 2011, at 9:34 p.m.

While a plan to build a bypass around Wiscasset was controversial, abandoning the plan without an alternative leaves a real problem without a solution. This is bad for the town, Maine and its many visitors.

Commissioner of the Department of Transportation David Bernhardt announced Monday that the state was abandoning further consideration of a bypass around the Route 1 town.

“The cost of building the bypass far exceeds any potential benefits to motorists and the communities,” Commissioner Bernhardt announced in a statement. “At a time when we have difficulty finding the financial resources to maintain our existing infrastructure, I cannot justify the expense of building a bypass around Wiscasset.”

He’s right: Building a bypass would be expensive and environmental hurdles — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service objected to a proposed route because of an eagle’s next — would be difficult to cross. But abandoning a plan to ease chronic congestion on one of the state’s primary routes, one that is heavily traveled by tourists, is not good transportation policy.

Neither, of course, was “studying” the problem for 50 years without taking any real steps to resolve it. Nor is allowing Wiscasset residents and businesses, who on one hand say they need the problem solved but balk at any proposed solution, to decide the issue for a major coastal corridor.

Last month, officials from Maine and New Hampshire abruptly closed the Memorial Bridge, which carries Route 1 across the Piscataqua River between the two states, because deterioration was worse than expected.

A two-day inspection in late July revealed numerous structural problems with the 88-year-old Memorial Bridge and the problems appeared to be accelerating, so it was closed nearly a year ahead of schedule. A new bridge is scheduled to open in 2014.

The premature bridge closure and the abandonment of the Wiscasset bypass are the result of inadequate transportation planning and investment. More funding won’t solve all the state’s transportation woes, but it would give the state more options.

Instead, the Republican-controlled Legislature decided to skip a bond package for this year. Borrowing for transportation projects is a standard part of bond packages, which are typically strongly approved by voters.

Lawmakers also voted to stop adjusting the state’s gas tax with inflation. This saves consumers pennies at the pump but means the state will fall further short in its road and bridge budget.

The large traffic backups outside Wiscasset — a 45-minute crawl through the picturesque town in bumper-to-bumper traffic is not unusual in the summer — are not going away. This is not good for local businesses (drivers are likely to get angry, not be encouraged to stop and shop) and it is not good for an area where tourism is a major part of the economy.

Maine needs a plan for its many transportation needs as badly as it needs money. Such a plan would prioritize needs — building a bypass around Caribou may not have been as crucial as one around Wiscasset. And the state should not shy away from innovative solutions. Former Gov. Angus King, for example, proposed a tunnel in Wiscasset, a plan that was met with derision.

Crumbling bridges and traffic bottlenecks won’t disappear with wishful thinking. A strategy to deal with these problems, preferably before they become emergencies, is overdue.

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