Interstate 295 has become the scourge of many southern Maine commuters. The increasingly congested highway, especially the stretch between Brunswick to Portland, is the site of several crashes a week, on average.
Last March, the Maine Department of Transportation reduced the speed limit on that stretch of I-295 from 70 to 65 miles per hour. Since then the number of crashes has dropped 18 percent over the previous year. This reverses the trend of increasing numbers of crashes each year since the Department of Transportation raised the speed limit in May 2014.
The lower speed limit won’t magically solve all the problems on I-295, but it appears to be a move in the right direction.
According to an analysis by the Portland Press Herald, vehicle collisions on I-295 between Portland and Brunswick rose 66 percent in the three years after the 2014 speed limit increase. There were 290 crashes in 2016, compared with 174 in 2013, the last year before the speed limit was increased.
In 2017, there were 237 crashes on that stretch of I-295, an 18 percent dip from the previous year.
“I like that the traffic and crashes are starting to go down, let’s hope it continues in the same vein,” Steve Landry, head traffic engineer at transportation department, told the paper. “We need some more information, but we hope that what we have done will help solve the problem.”
Transportation officials have also cited increased traffic on I-295 and poor driver behavior, such as tailgating and texting while driving, as contributing factors to the increase in crashes. With more vehicles on the road — and many going faster than the posted speed limit — there is little room for error.
From 2009 to 2015, traffic increased almost 20 percent on I-295, which is an important commuter route. Traffic volume statewide increased only 2.4 percent during that time.
Encouraging drivers to use I-95, which runs from Scarborough to West Gardiner to the west of I-295, also is under discussion at the Department of Transportation. Message boards could, for example, show the travel time from Augusta to the New Hampshire border on the two different routes. Other states have posted similar messages on their message boards to encourage drivers to use less congested routes.
Longer term, the Department of Transportation is looking at rebuilding on- and off-ramps in Falmouth and Yarmouth to reduce curves and lengthen the space for drivers to enter and exit the highway.
Further in the future, the department may study widening I-295, although that is not currently under consideration.
Not all solutions will come from the Department of Transportation. Amtrak has recently expanded its service to Brunswick, allowing commuters to ride the train to work in Portland or farther south. An extension to Rockland is currently under consideration. Additional rideshare programs and bus routes, if people use them, also could help alleviate the congestion on I-295.
While the Department of Transportation works on changes big and small, drivers can do their part by slowing down, stowing the cellphone, and simply calming down and not driving so aggressively.
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