KITTERY, Maine — The state’s Department of Transportation may explore shutting down Exit 1 on Interstate 95 when traffic is “really bad” in the summer, so motorists can’t get off and clog local roads, said DOT Chief Engineer Joyce Taylor.
Taylor told the Town Council Monday night “that is on the table,” but would require further exploration and traffic modeling, as well as discussion with Kittery officials. DOT officials, including Commissioner Bruce Van Note, and Maine Turnpike Authority representatives met with councilors during a workshop at Town Hall to provide an update on current construction and talk long-term planning for transportation infrastructure.
“I lived the dream of coming [to Kittery] Sunday afternoons a couple times, and I know you’re not exaggerating about how bad it was,” Taylor said of seasonal traffic. “It was awful.”
Earlier this year, town officials were fearful the Piscataqua River Bridge rehabilitation project, which began in June, would exacerbate Kittery’s epidemic of I-95 drivers diverting off the highway and clogging town roadways attempting to avoid traffic. The phrase “Sunday afternoons in Kittery” comes with the connotation of neighborhood gridlock for many residents, and it’s also an issue when motorists travel in high volumes northbound at the beginning of a weekend.
It’s not uncommon to see both Route 1 and State Road in a bottleneck state on a summer weekend.
“We’re the gateway to the state,” said Council Chair Judy Spiller. “We want people to come in, but we also want to protect what we value about Kittery.”
The ongoing Piscataqua bridge project includes asphalt wearing surface replacement, deck patching, joint replacement, median barrier replacement, concrete patching, new railings, electrical system upgrade, and part-time shoulder use to eventually increase capacity. The lane closure portion of the project has just recently begun.
The project is occurring in tandem with construction of a new toll plaza in York, less than 10 miles up the road.
Taylor said the I-95 bridge rehabilitation is “the most planned traffic project we’ve ever done.” So far, she said, “it’s been going well,” and DOT is constantly monitoring traffic flow. Real-time message boards installed on I-95, which give motorists up-to-date travel times, encourage vehicles to stay on the interstate. Taylor said research shows if motorists know how long it’s going to take to reach a certain location, they are less likely to chose an alternative route.
A major piece of the Piscataqua River Bridge project is the addition of a fourth lane for part-time shoulder use, which Taylor called a “medium-term solution” to increase capacity and lessen congestion.
“We’re going to try to leave this bridge in a condition where we can move more traffic when it’s really busy,” she said.
Steve Landry, state traffic engineer, said the project has been “all about balance,” and finding a way to complete the necessary construction with the least amount of impact. Landry said DOT may also look at ramp metering in the future, which would place traffic signals on the on-and-off ramps to “break up platoons of traffic,” which typically slow down the entire interstate when vehicles attempt to merge.
Councilor Jeffrey Thomson, who has previously expressed concern with the capacity of the bridges connecting New Hampshire and Maine, said the “ultimate solution is more lanes.” He said he’d like to see five lanes in each direction, and possibly someday, a twin structure built next to the Piscataqua River Bridge.
Van Note said the state has invested approximately $330 million in bridges over the Piscataqua in recent years, compared to $140 million statewide. He estimated Thomson’s request would likely equal around half a billion dollars.
“I understand the term ‘bridge fatigue’ down here,” Van Note said. “The I-95 crossing between New Hampshire and Maine is without question the most important one in the state of Maine. It’s a very high priority for me to start the planning.”
The Maine and New Hampshire DOTs and Maine Turnpike Authority launched a marketing initiative this summer, called “Maine Ahead: Building a Better Gateway,” to raise awareness among travelers about the ongoing construction. Updates can be found on “Maine Ahead News” accounts on Facebook and Twitter, and buildingabettergateway.com.