Residents of the rapidly growing suburbs west of Portland could have quicker commutes within five years if the Maine Turnpike Authority moves forward with a $220 million plan to build a new six-mile highway from the Maine Mall in South Portland to Gorham.
The proposal is notable and controversial in part because Maine rarely builds new roads. Its price tag would be far out of reach for the Maine Department of Transportation but is viable for the quasi-state turnpike authority, which believes toll revenue would eventually offset its costs.
The extension, which would come on the heels of turnpike widening in the Portland area, would connect one of Maine’s fastest-growing suburbs with Interstate 95 and lessen rush-hour drives in the short run. Skeptics question whether a new road fits with environmental goals and whether the region is putting enough effort toward addressing public transit and land use issues.
A final route has not been determined, but the road would likely connect with the Maine Turnpike at Exit 45 near the Maine Mall in South Portland. It would still require a range of environmental permits, which the turnpike authority could begin to seek next year.
The project — which is in the planning stages but is a decade in the making — aims to combat congestion on side roads amid rapid growth in the Portland suburbs. For example, average daily traffic on Brackett Road, which runs south from Main Street in Gorham toward Route 22, has more than doubled since the 1990s, according to a review of Maine Department of Transportation data completed by the infrastructure firm HNTB.
“It’s a real bottleneck, and it’s really a situation that does need to be addressed,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, a Democrat who represents neighboring Windham and chairs the Legislature’s transportation committee.
Concerns about road capacity west of Portland are not new. The Legislature ordered the Maine Department of Transportation and the Maine Turnpike Authority to study the issue in 2007. The ensuing report, completed in 2012, had three recommendations: build a highway connecting Gorham and South Portland, increase availability of public transportation, and implement zoning changes to promote density in the Portland suburbs.
In 2017, lawmakers authorized the turnpike authority to issue up to $150 million in bonds for the project following an evaluation of alternatives as required under state law. The agency is now “relatively close” to deciding on a preferred route, executive director Peter Mills said, and plans to work on public engagement in the coming year.
While the project’s reception in affected towns — Scarborough, Gorham, Westbrook and South Portland — has been largely positive so far, it could still face pushback. Voters rejected a $100 million widening project there after a fraught 1991 campaign between business and environmental interests, though the widening eventually took place by 2004, when the turnpike added an additional travel lane between Scarborough and York.
“The transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Maine,” said Phelps Turner, a Portland-based attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, “and to the extent that the highway creates additional traffic, there will be negative impacts with respect to increased greenhouse gas emissions.”
Turner said he worried about induced demand — the notion that although increased road capacity may temporarily reduce congestion, it also leads more people to drive, resulting in more cars on the road in the long run. Increased adoption of electric vehicles could reduce carbon impacts eventually, but the vast majority of Mainers are likely to still be driving gas-powered vehicles in 2025 or 2026, when the connector would be completed.
The potential for increased emissions would likely be more dramatic if the construction of the highway is not accompanied by changes in zoning and increased public transit, as the 2012 report recommended. Both have seen some progress, with Greater Portland Metro adding a Gorham-Portland bus line in 2018 and a legislative panel recommending statewide zoning changes earlier this year, though there has not been a single strategy uniting those areas.
Additional forms of transit would help “preserve the effectiveness” of the highway over time, said Mills of the Maine Turnpike Authority, who is Gov. Janet Mills’ brother. But public transportation alone “was never intended” to be a sufficient answer to the region’s capacity issues, he said.
Mills also noted the agency’s process was aimed at minimizing environmental impact on waterways such as Red Brook in Scarborough. He said he had been meeting with landowners in the area and anticipated the agency would need to buy out only a handful of homes, while part of the route would run adjacent to the EcoMaine landfill. Any construction would also be dependent on receiving the necessary environmental permits.
Diamond, the state senator from Windham, said the region would benefit from clear prioritization and long-term planning as rapid population growth makes it easy for projects to fall by the wayside with seemingly more urgent ones appearing.
“It’s obvious that this project is needed,” he said. “The question is, are there other projects out there that may be even more needed?”