Retiree Bertha Grenier, who no longer drives, often uses a part of South Portland’s Greenbelt to get around the Mill Creek area, usually walking from her apartment on the corner of Cottage and Broadway to the Wendy’s restaurant to meet up with her friends.
But, she never crosses the intersection at the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge, even though she has friends living in a retirement home south of where the roads converge that she would visit if there was a safe way to get across.
“You can’t trust the drivers,” she said. “No one is looking and everyone is in a hurry. If I could get across easier, I would use the Greenbelt more. The traffic is just awful and making it as easy as possible” would be great.
The South Portland City Council has passed a capital improvement budget for the new fiscal year that includes $60,000 for an engineering study of a possible pedestrian bridge that would provide safer passage along the Greenbelt Walkway through the snarl of traffic at the intersection of Broadway and Waterman Drive.
City staff and residents have been discussing the possibility of a bridge over one of the city’s busiest intersections for at least a year. A feasibility study and planning session have already been conducted and the next stage is to begin looking at bridge designs and how they might fit into the intersection, according to Tex Haeuser, the city’s planning and development director.
Greenbelt users last weekend showed support for a possible pedestrian bridge that would link the Greenbelt over the multiple lanes of traffic that converge at the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge – although one resident said his support would depend on the cost of the project, which Haeuser has pegged at between $1.5 million and $3 million.
Cape Elizabeth resident Kent Haffenreffer, who rides the Greenbelt from the Wainwright Recreation Complex, off Highland Avenue, down to Mill Creek Park with his 4-year-old grandson nearly every weekend, said a pedestrian bridge would be “a good thing” and the city providing an “easier way of getting across would be nice.”
He called the intersection of Broadway and Waterman Drive “very busy with a lot of cars,” and said he’s teaching his grandson to respect the crossing signals and to wait no matter how long it takes for the crossing signal to give the OK.
Even so, Saturday afternoon Haffenreffer and his grandson were nearly clipped by a vehicle turning right from Broadway onto Waterman Drive.
Bill Coogan and Kim Matthews, who also often ride their bicycles the three or so miles from the Wainwright fields to Mill Creek, said they usually turn around instead of trying to cross the Broadway-Waterman Drive intersection.
Coogan, who lives in Westbrook and just recently discovered the Greenbelt, said that a pedestrian bridge “would be a great idea because of the intersection of all these roads.”
However, even Mayor Tom Blake, who is a big advocate of open space and who promotes use of the Greenbelt, said this week that his support for a pedestrian bridge would depend on proof of the need.
He called the intersection at Broadway and Waterman Drive “disastrous” and “terrible.” He said that while he personally would like a pedestrian bridge), “the majority of residents may not.”
Blake added that as an elected official spending taxpayer dollars, it’s up to him and the other members of the City Council to ensure that money is being spent on something that’s needed and not just something that would be an added convenience.
“I was stunned,” Blake said, to see the money for the engineering study in the new capital improvement budget. He said he believes that before any bridge gets built, “we need to do some research and find out what issues we really have there. We need statistics to back up the need and I won’t support a pedestrian bridge unless I know there is a need.”
Blake also pointed out that putting up a pedestrian walkway over the intersection of Broadway and Waterman Drive would only solve half the problem.
There also is an issue of how people using the sidewalk on the Armory side of the street could cross Broadway safely, in order to access the shops and other amenities in Mill Creek.
Blake also pointed out that the cost to the city would not only be for the initial construction of the pedestrian bridge, but also for future maintenance of the structure.
Although he noted that it’s “ludicrous to have to wait up to four minutes” to cross at the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge, he also said that most people “don’t use the walk signals at the interchange correctly. If we could get the light cycle changed, we may find we don’t even need a bridge.”
In an earlier interview, Haeuser agreed.
“This is a kind of project that’s (seen) both as a need, but also an amenity,” he said. “To a certain extent this will (only) happen if people in the community are interested and want it and (are) maybe willing to find ways to help out (financially).”
However, he also pointed out that that there are aesthetic and branding advantages to having a well-designed, heightened walkway at the entrance of the city, which could arguably fit in with the city’s new Economic Development Plan.
Jane Eberle, president of the South Portland/Cape Elizabeth Community Chamber of Commerce, said there could definitely be an economic benefit to having an elevated walkway to link the Greenbelt at the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge.
“The Casco Bay Bridge intersection should be a beautiful, accessible and efficient entry point to South Portland,” she said. “In previous comprehensive plan round table discussions the lack of a signature gateway has been raised as a deficit. (And), an elevated walkway at that intersection would benefit businesses, citizens and help promote South Portland as a walkable, bikeable, user-friendly community.”
As a resident of South Portland, Eberle supports the idea of a pedestrian bridge.
“I think it’s a fantastic idea, and I know it has been tossed around for a long time. I walk the Greenbelt on a regular basis and it’s extremely difficult to get across that intersection just from the same side of Broadway. Having a walkway (there) would connect South Portland’s commercial center with the residential side (and) allow pedestrians and bikes easy access to Mill Creek, Knightville, municipal offices, the bus hub, etc.,” she said.
Josh Reny, South Portland’s assistant city manager and director of economic development, also sees the benefits of an elevated pedestrian walkway at the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge.
“Trails, parks and open space are public amenities that reflect some of the core values of South Portland as a community,” he said. “We need to be thinking about the entries and gateways into the community and what they impart to visitors and residents. A pedestrian bridge at such a key gateway would be as much a landmark as it would be (an important) transportation or recreation infrastructure.”
While the city plans to use some funds from its Downtown Tax Increment Financing District for the engineering study, the bulk of the funding would have to come through grants, Haeuser said last week. Therefore, the study may not even be completed in the new fiscal year.
Sun Media Wire staff writer Alex Acquisto also contributed to this report.
Bicylists and pedestrians often have to wait as long as four minutes, or more, to safely cross the intersection of Broadway and Waterman Drive at the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge in South Portland.
Mulitple lanes of traffic converging at the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge in South Portland makes crossing on foot or by bicycle hazardous.
An rendering of what a possible pedestrian bridge over the intersection of Broadway and Waterman Drive in South Portland could look like.