PORTLAND, Maine —The Portland City Council on Monday voted unanimously to move ahead with plans for reconfiguring one of the city’s most congested, most confusing and most dangerous intersections.
Councilors adopted recommendations of the Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee to overhaul the six-legged junction of Falmouth Street and Brighton and Deering avenues, near the University of Southern Maine.
The plans call for constructing two vehicle roundabouts, at that intersection and at the smaller intersection of Deering Avenue and Bedford Street, a block east. The roundabouts — one-way traffic circles with entrances and exits to adjoining streets — would be the first in the city.
In addition, the one-block stretch of Brighton Avenue between Falmouth and Bedford streets would be eliminated.
The Brighton-Deering-Falmouth junction has long been a trouble spot for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.
Brighton and Deering avenues are both busy arterial roads, while Falmouth Street carries increasingly heavy traffic near USM. Vehicles sometimes must queue up 100 feet before the traffic signals, or are left stranded in the broad intersection when a signal changes. Traffic signs provide little direction, and pedestrians are forced to hopscotch from corner to corner.
The design has resulted in an accident rate 17 percent higher than typical for the intersection’s traffic volume, according to the city. The state Department of Transportation designates the area a “high-accident location.”
The city began studying new designs for the intersection nearly two years ago, with funding from the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System. Based on a series of public meetings, five concepts for the reconfiguration were developed.
Two concepts — the roundabout design and a similar plan that used new traffic signals at each intersection — were considered in March by the TSE Committee, which ultimately recommended the roundabouts.
The new design will improve traffic flow and make the intersection safer, according to District 3 Councilor Ed Suslovic, who represents the surrounding neighborhood.
Analysis has shown the roundabouts will reduce the incidence of accidents, he said, and those that do occur will tend to be less serious because they are not likely to be sideways, “T-bone” collisions.
“And with roundabouts, everyone has to slow down, but everyone keeps moving,” Suslovic added.
Bruce Hyman, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian program coordinator, said the roundabout design would benefit everyone who uses the junction.
“It’ll calm the traffic environment, so that bicyclists, motorists and pedestrians can all coexist safely,” he said.
Still, not everyone was enthusiastic about the design.
Holm Avenue resident Robert Haines asked why the city would spend millions of dollars to fix an intersection that he called “one of the better-working ones on Brighton Avenue.”
“We have great needs,” Haines said, “and this intersection can be made to work with the proper signals.”
Construction of the roundabout design is estimated to cost about $1.5 million, according to Hyman. That’s $200,000 more than the traffic-signal plan also considered by the TSE Committee.
In addition, the city would have to acquire private property from three adjacent lots, with a valuation of about $33,000, he said.
With the roundabout design now adopted as part of the city’s master plan, construction of new intersection will depend on the ability to obtain the necessary funding. USM has already pledged to contribute $250,000 toward the project.
In other business, the council approved spending about $150,000 on the initial phase of street improvements planned at another busy intersection, Woodfords Corner.
The council voted unanimously to approve an agreement with PACTS and the state DOT to conduct preliminary engineering work and a traffic study of the intersection. The city’s spending represents 10 percent of the cost for the initial phase.
The council also voted to accept nearly $190,000 in DOT funding to begin planning a bicycle and pedestrian trail from Elm Street to the Portland Transportation Center in Libbytown. That amount is matched by city capital improvement funds of $47,000, and could be used to extend the Bayside Trail or to create a new one.
The funding “helps plan one of the missing links in creating a continuous trail system around the Portland peninsula,” according to a city memo.