BANGOR, Maine — With just 2½ days left until Christmas, traffic on Stillwater Avenue was flowing briskly without any noticeable traffic jams.
While some motorists still gripe about holiday traffic on one of the main routes to and from the Bangor Mall area, officials say traffic there isn’t the nightmare it used to be. Judging from a five-minute drive Thursday afternoon from the Stillwater exit off Interstate 95 to the intersection of Stillwater and Hogan Road, they’re right.
“I certainly don’t make it a habit to go out there on Saturday afternoons this time of year, but I think we’ve seen a huge improvement out there since we added the fifth [middle] lane three years ago,” said Bangor City Engineer Art Morgan.
While 3 p.m. on a Thursday may not qualify as rush hour, the five-minute drive from the offramp to the Stillwater-Hogan Road intersection and subsequent five-minute drive from that intersection near Sam’s Club was surprisingly quick.
Morgan said that while the construction of an offramp and onramp to I-95 a decade ago has increased the overall traffic volume on Stillwater, it also has helped to siphon traffic away from Hogan Road — another notoriously busy route — and made traffic flow more quickly on Stillwater as well.
The ramps “have, at times, backed traffic up on Stillwater since they went up, but we’ve received very few complaints the last few weeks,” Morgan added.
Maine Department of Transportation traffic engineer Steve Landry said an increase in ramp-related traffic isn’t all bad.
“Since the I-95 ramps opened, there have been a lot of stores cropping up on Stillwater, and that apparently has increased traffic flow,” he said. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as we’re all about economic development.”
Both Morgan and Landry said there are other steps that could be taken to further improve Stillwater’s traffic flow, but none of them are radical.
“There are probably some more tweaks we can make with the signage and street markings to make it more clear, especially to the nonresident drivers,” said Morgan.
Landry suggested the same steps, along with another.
“Coordination of signal lights is probably the best you’re going to be able to do,” Landry said. “We’re never going to design a perfect thoroughfare for peak holiday season traffic.”
Landry explained that most roads are designed to accommodate average traffic in the most economical and efficient way.
“If you designed it for peak traffic, you’d wind up with six-lane highways everywhere,” Landry said. “We design roads for higher-than-average traffic flow so that a majority of traffic flow during peak hours is accounted for and that for a majority of [the] time it will handle the traffic volume.”
There may not be enough space to extend the middle lane between the offramps and Hogan Road farther along Stillwater.
“They’ve widened it once already, and there’s an area where the road goes under power lines, so I believe we’re already out as far as we can go,” Landry said.
City officials explored the idea of adding a secondary or access road running parallel to Stillwater and linking it to shopping areas on the side of the road opposite the Bangor Mall.
“I believe there was a study done five or six years ago, and I think that was an issue as far as the marsh,” Landry said.
That marsh is the Penjajawoc Marsh and Stream area adjacent to Stillwater and the Bangor City Forest. The arcing road would have proceeded behind The Home Depot through to the Kohl’s driveway, but not directly into the Kohl’s shopping plaza, crossing Gilman Road.
“We’ve looked at alternatives to putting all the traffic on Stillwater with a road that would have gone from Stillwater interchange to connect to Hogan Road extension, but unfortunately there are a lot of environmental issues that go along with that because of the marsh and it’s been deemed infeasible,” said Morgan.
In the meantime, drivers are doing the best they can, and some seem to have adapted by changing their shopping times or days.
Former Bangor City Engineer Jim Ring, who had a lot more time to hit the road for Christmas shopping this year now that he’s retired, was driving around in South Portland and the Maine Mall the first two weekends of December and said it was easier for him to get around in Bangor. He added that he experienced longer waits on Payne Road and Maine Mall Road in South Portland than he did on Stillwater Avenue.
Ring stressed the importance of planning driving routes beforehand, with an emphasis on avoiding as many left turns as possible.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a big difference as far as holding up traffic behind you and trying to turn in front of traffic,” he said.