WISCASSET, Maine — The Maine Department of Transportation has studied Wiscasset traffic congestion for more than 40 years and spent more than $1 million exploring a bypass that is no longer an option, Project Manager Gerry Audibert said. Three new proposals are on the table to improve traffic flow through downtown Wiscasset and the DOT needs the town to make a decision, he said.
At the annual town meeting by referendum in June, voters will consider the three options in a non-binding referendum question – two focus on intersection improvements to Route 1 and Water Street and Middle Street, one is to do nothing. The Wiscasset Board of Selectmen will have the final say in a vote the DOT anticipates by the end of June.
At an open house held by the DOT and Wiscasset on Tuesday, May 10, residents expressed divergent views on the options. Several residents continued to express support for a bypass, despite a very clear message from the DOT that it is a project that will never come to pass.
The elimination of on-street parking between Middle Street and Water Street is the major difference between the two options for intersection improvements. Both options include installing traffic signals for vehicles and pedestrians at the intersections.
Several downtown business owners expressed concern about the elimination of on-street parking, which offers the most potential for a DOT-funded beautification of the downtown area, and is the option highly recommended by the DOT.
Handicapped-accessibility, access for deliveries to downtown businesses, and movement of bulky items whose sale the downtown art and antique dealerships rely on were consistent themes in the statements of business owners.
Others criticized the plans as a beautification effort that would do little to alleviate the problems that bring traffic to a standstill during the tourist season.
Still others embraced DOT’s proposal for downtown Wiscasset, particularly the option that eliminates on-street parking, which several residents said could transform downtown from an area people avoid to a destination spot.
The question of which proposal to support will be presented to voters as Article 72 on the warrant for Wiscasset’s annual town meeting by referendum on Tuesday, June 14. Residents will be asked to vote for option 1, 2, or 3 on the warrant in a non-binding opinion poll.
The selection of option 1 supports the conceptual drawing that eliminates some but not all of the on-street parking between Middle Street and Water Street. Option 2 supports the elimination of all parking between Middle Street and Water Street. In its place, the DOT would create an additional off-street parking area. The DOT is eyeing Coastal Enterprises Inc.’s property at 36 Water St. as a potential location for the new parking lot.
Option 3 supports doing nothing.
Both conceptual drawings include transforming Railroad Avenue into a one-way street with 18 on-street parking spaces and a new parking area that can accommodate 26 vehicles and two buses. Creamery Pier will also be reconstructed to accommodate 20 additional parking spaces.
Sidewalks will be widened along Main Street in both proposals, and sidewalk extensions, or bump-outs, will be built at the intersections to reduce pedestrian crossing time. Traffic and pedestrian lights will be installed at both intersections to increase safety for turning vehicles and reduce pedestrian crossings.
According to Audibert, during peak traffic times, there is an average of 100 pedestrian crossings an hour downtown; the traffic signals will reduce that number to 30.
A new sidewalk will be constructed along Red’s Eats in both option 1 and option 2 to separate passing pedestrians from patrons.
There is little opportunity for the beautification of downtown in option 1 outside of plantings along the bump-outs, Audibert said. With the elimination of on-street parking in option 2, however, the sidewalks could be expanded to accommodate cafe tables, benches, and plantings.
The representation of option 2 is conceptual, and the actual details will be largely determined by the town and downtown business owners, Audibert said. If Wiscasset goes for option 2, the town will become responsible for maintenance, he said.
According to DOT projections, option 1 will reduce traffic back-up by 51 percent; option 2 will reduce traffic back-up by 55-58 percent.
Some residents criticized the all-or-nothing approach of the DOT in the options presented to the town, which some said are polarizing the community.
According to Audibert, a team of DOT officials examined 30 different proposals and initially was only going to propose option 1. However, after learning the CEI building was for sale, the DOT explored off-street parking as an alternative.
The proposals on the table are estimated to be a $5 million investment, as opposed to the $100 million involved in constructing a new route around downtown, Audibert said. “It won’t solve all problems, but with a 50 percent reduction (in traffic back-up), it’s worth it,” he said.
The DOT has the funding and the will to move forward with the project now, Audibert said. “We’ve been studying this for 40 years,” he said. “We’re at a point where the senior management wants us to do something.”
Residents will vote on which proposal to support Tuesday, June 14 at the annual town meeting by referendum. Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Wiscasset Community Center.