ISLAND FALLS, Maine — Since mid-June, a section of Interstate 95 northbound has been closed as the Maine Department of Transportation completes a major reconstruction project to a 10-mile stretch starting at Exit 276 in Island Falls and ending at Exit 286 in Oakfield.
Severe frost heaves in the northbound lanes of the interstate between the two towns resulted in the decision to reroute traffic to Route 2. In order to meet deadlines and satisfactorily complete the task at hand, Maine Department of Transportation officials decided shutting down both interstate lanes of traffic was the best method for this project.
While increasing the amount of traffic flowing through the areas of Island Falls and Oakfield, the detour, which was originally viewed as a possible boon for the economy in the two small towns, has not been seen as such by local business owner Jerry Violette.
“The only thing I’ve seen that’s increased a lot is alcohol sales, other than that they don’t slow down enough to stop. They fly right through here — tunnel vision. They’ve just got one thing in mind, which is to get back on the Interstate,” Violette, owner of Jerry’s Foodstore, said.
The rerouting has also resulted in an increase in traffic violations, leading to concern from citizens who live and work in the area as well as a focused effort from the Maine Department of Transportation and state police to address those concerns.
“We’ve been working with the [Maine Department of Transportation] to provide troopers on the detour that are basically detailed there. That’s their specific focus. We run them during times of the day based on our observations and based on complaints from the public,” Lt. John Cote of the Houlton state police explained.
“The problem was just a dramatic increase in traffic volume, so the troopers are detailed there in both marked and unmarked patrol vehicles and really just trying to deal with traffic safety-related aspects of that traffic,” he explained.
The cost of these details is absorbed by the Maine Department of Transportation and Cote acknowledged that without the focused troopers on site, the situation within the small towns would be much different.
“Without the added expenditure by [Maine Department of Transportation] to have troopers on site with that full focus, we’d really be limited to the trooper working that area as his assigned patrol zone for the day and, as we know, he’s dealing with calls for service throughout his patrol area and it would only be like very intermittent attention to that detour,” Cote explained.
The added police presence has resulted in positive feedback from the community, and Tabbie York, a resident of Island Falls, expressed her gratitude for the work of the state police.
“We have had some issues, but [Maine Department of Transportation] have enforced the speed of 25 [mph] with state troopers in town,” she said.
“Citizens are good about approaching our troopers and giving them feedback about the noticeable difference of when we’re there versus when we’re not. Certainly the public is saying that when troopers aren’t around the speeds are increased pretty dramatically,” Cote said.
Speed has been a concern voiced by the public, and Cote admits that it is the issue most often addressed by the dedicated detour coverage.
“All in all, speed would be our highest contact reason,” he said.
Troopers also address other safety-related operations such as unsafe passing or following too closely, and stops are sometimes accompanied by other, more serious infractions.
“We have stopped literally hundreds of people during the time of these details, up to this point. There are a lot of other collateral offenses that have come from traffic stops — an OUI or somebody operating after the suspension of their license and a handful of arrests on warrants,” Cote explained.
Other distinct events have added to the work of the Maine Department of Transportation and state police.
“There have been some unique events like the Harley Owners Group ride — they came up with 400-plus motorcycles — and getting them through the detour and general holiday traffic,” Cote said, also highlighting the annual Potato Blossom Festival as another event spurring an increase in northbound traffic.
The volume of summer traffic is not something that can be changed, but Cote expressed that traffic safety is addressed as the main concern of the details throughout the rerouted area.
“We continue to be thankful for the community’s understanding and patience and we hope the weather continues to cooperate so they can finish their project on time and get back on I-95,” said Cote, who added the I-95 project is set to be finished at some point in November.