Changes to Portland’s outer Congress Street aim to slow traffic

Posted May 15, 2012, at 10:54 p.m.
Last modified May 16, 2012, at 5:25 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The city is piggybacking on a state paving job along outer Congress Street to redesign — and in some places reduce — the traffic lanes on the busy street.

The project, which borrows proposals from a 2007 study on the road developed by a city task force, aims to shrink lanes from 12 feet to 11 feet and at some intersections create left-only lanes to split turning vehicles off from through traffic.

The efforts aim to slow cars and trucks on the street, as well as to free up shoulder space for the possible introduction of a bicycle lane in some places.

No extra lanes for automobiles will be added, though, City Councilor Ed Suslovic said during a Tuesday night public forum on the project. The 2007 report proposed widening outer Congress Street to a five-lane road in some places and expanding the street’s chaotic intersection with Stevens Avenue to, among other things, create double left-turning lanes onto Congress.

Suslovic said this summer’s work will not include those changes. To the contrary, Portland traffic consultant Tom Errico said Tuesday, the stretch of Congress Street near Hobart Street would be reduced to three lanes — one lane each going inbound and outbound, and a middle turning lane.

“What I’ve heard consistently is … we should put the road on a diet,” Suslovic told the nearly 50 people who turned out at the Italian Heritage Center on Tuesday evening.

Errico said the changes that will take place all will be the result of lane reconfigurations within the paved area that now exists. Those striping changes are being paid for by the Maine Department of Transportation as part of its scheduled summer repaving of Congress Street from Stevens Avenue to Johnson Road.

“It’s really a basic paving project that we’re using to address some transportation issues through these neighborhoods,” said Michael Bobinsky, Portland public services director.

Among the specific changes will be the creation of dedicated left-turning lanes onto Waldo Street and Westbrook Street, as well as the establishment of a middle turning lane between inbound and outbound lanes in several locations.

“The research is pretty clear: Going from 12 feet to 11 feet changes [traffic] speed,” said Errico. “Going from four lanes to three lanes changes speeds. So we think this is going to help slow people down.”

The MDOT paving job is slated to begin in mid-June and feature a period between when the first and second layers of asphalt are put down to allow area residents and commuters to try the new lane configurations and suggest changes before the final marks are painted in place.

The state will post a survey about outer Congress Street on its website to facilitate the discussion, department officials said Tuesday. They said Congress Street is overdue for maintenance work, as it hasn’t been been the focus of “major work” in 17 years and is now in danger of falling from a service condition ranking of “fair” to “poor.”