WISCASSET, Maine — A Maine Department of Transportation traffic proposal for downtown Wiscasset, which voters and the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen have approved, is undergoing a federal review process that could alter the project.
The transportation department plans to use Federal Highway Administration funds for the project, giving the administration the final say on the plan to reduce traffic congestion in downtown Wiscasset, said Cassandra Chase, an environmental engineer with the Federal Highway Administration.
No decision will be made until a review of the project’s impact on the environment and historic places is completed, Chase said.
Transportation department and Federal Highway Administration officials met with the Wiscasset Historic Preservation Commission as part of the federal “Section 106” review process Thursday, Aug. 4. The process, which is one of three federal review processes the proposal will undergo, will determine the impact of the project on Wiscasset’s historic district and properties.
The Department of Transportation traffic proposal voters selected in June calls for widening the sidewalks on Main Street and eliminating on-street parking, an element of the proposal many downtown business owners have opposed. The project is in the heart of the Wiscasset village, which is listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.
The transportation department has already initiated a survey of properties in the project area to determine if the structures are historically important. The Haggett Garage, the Water Street building the DOT hopes to purchase and tear down for a parking area, is not considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, according to the survey.
The proposal to eliminate on-street parking on Main Street rests on the ability of the Department of Transportation to secure a new parking area on an adjacent street. The proposal to eliminate on-street parking was developed after learning the Haggett Garage, currently owned by Coastal Enterprises Inc., was on the market and could serve as the location of a new parking area, transportation department officials have said.
According to members of the Wiscasset Historic Preservation Commission, the Haggett Garage, built in 1916 as one of the first car dealerships in Wiscasset, is a historically important building. The Wiscasset Historic Preservation Commission was formed a little over one year ago, when Wiscasset adopted a historic preservation ordinance to assist property owners in maintaining the architectural integrity of the town’s historic resources.
“The Haggett Garage … We say it’s contributing [to the historic district],” commission member Jib Fowles said. “The MDOT and the feds say it’s non-contributing. How do we sort this out?”
The Haggett Garage is not considered eligible for registry on the National Registry of Historic Places, criteria that is guiding the Section 106 review process, said Megan Hopkin, a historic planner with the Department of Transportation. The number of alterations made to the building has significantly changed its architecture, Hopkin said.
If members of the historic preservation commission feel strongly that the determination regarding the Haggett Garage or other properties is wrong, Hopkin invited members to conduct their own survey and present their case regarding the structures.
“We’re really looking for input and to hear your concerns,” Chase said. “We want to know if what we determined is accurate.”
The Section 106 review process will be followed by an environmental review, Chase said. Once the reviews are complete, the Federal Highway Administration will make a decision regarding the design of the project — whether to move forward with the transportation department’s proposal or suggest an alternative, she said.
The federally mandated environmental review was part of the reason the bypass project in Wiscasset failed, Chase said.
Department of Transportation Project Manager Gerry Audibert has been the face of the downtown traffic proposal since it was first publicly introduced in March. The transportation department is now preparing to move the project out of its planning division and into design; a department official from design will carry the project forward, Audibert said.
A department project that involves Federal Highway Administration funds involves several processes that are not always in sync, Audibert said. The federal review process for historically significant structures and the environment is assessing the adverse affects of the Department of Transportation’s proposal.
According to Chase, it is unusual for projects to have so much public input so early in the process; however, because of the history of transportation department projects in Wiscasset, the department felt it was important to gauge community support, Chase said.
While it is possible the federal review process could trump the Department of Transportation’s preferred proposal, the department hopes its preferred option, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters, will be the final one agreed upon, Audibert said.
“We’re pretty confident,” in the proposal, Audibert said.
The transportation department is hoping to fast-track the Wiscasset project and will soon send out a municipal agreement that will lay out a legal agreement between the department and Wiscasset, Audibert said.
According to Audibert, if the federal review process does change the traffic proposal for Wiscasset, a public vote on the proposal is not required. However, the municipal agreement between Wiscasset and the Department of Transportation will need to be altered, and the alteration would require a vote by the Board of Selectmen.