Residents air concerns over River Road rebuild

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Bruce Elder of Windham shares his concerns about proposed changes to River Road during a public meeting led by Maine Department of Transportation officials. 

WINDHAM — Speeding traffic, passing lanes and the impact on historical property were among residents’ concerns Wednesday night at a meeting about the proposed rebuilding of River Road.

Maine Department of Transportation officials held the meeting to inform residents about the plan to reconstruct River Road from the Westbrook line north toward Route 202. Work on the more than 3-mile stretch, which is heavily trafficked and cuts through one of the most historic parts of town, would would begin in the fall of 2018.

Eighty percent of the cost of the $6.4 million project would be covered by federal funding with the state picking up the rest of the cost.

Several of the more than 50 attendees at the meeting said that flattening and widening the road as planned would actually make it more dangerous by allowing drivers to push the speed limit even more than they already may be doing.

“I’m concerned that the width of the travel lane and the paved shoulders will in fact result in increased speeds through an area that is the most historic in town,” said Town Manager Tony Plante, who lives on River Road. “I see on the initial slide and on the meeting announcement that this is the final public meeting. I sincerely hope that there is an opportunity to review this so that the design that does end up being built truly is sensitive to the context in the area.”

Some attendees at the meeting at Windham High School said additional passing lanes should be created in specific areas to make certain intersections safer, while others wanted to see specific passing areas shortened or removed. 

Windham Police Chief Kevin Schofield said after the meeting that he understands the traffic concerns and that they are not uncommon “when you take a rough road and turn it into a smooth road.” He said, however, that widening and flattening the road “will make it safer and more practical” for his department to patrol and enforce the speed limit. 

Other issues raised by residents at the meeting included the implications for abutting historic properties, road drainage, the impact on well-water quality, and  mail delivery during construction. 

Bruce Elder was concerned about how the project could impact his family’s historic properties and the historic character of the area in general.  

“I’m really concerned that the only things that seem to be taken note of are those several things that are on the historic registry. We never attempted to put the (Elder) household on the registry, so I don’t know if we could have or not, but it’s very well documented that it dates back to the mid 1750s. The problem is with some of these old buildings on this section, because they were built before the River Road, they are close to the road.”

“We have very little history to hang on to, we know what happened in North Windham – virtually nothing historic, unfortunately, was maintained,” he continued. “So this is kind of the last vestige to do that.” 

The Parson Smith and Anderson/Lord houses, also built in the 18th century, also are on the route.

The MDOT public meeting was led by Project Manager Ernie Martin and included presentations on the project design, its historic and archaeological implications in one of Windham’s oldest areas, and a right of way overview for the private property owners who abut the project area. 

The project is the second phase of the River Road rebuild. The initial phase focused on the stretch of road from Route 202 north to Page Road. This second phase has been slowed somewhat by the decision to add the replacement of the bridge over Colley Wright Brook to the project, and by an ongoing archaeological dig at the Province Fort, Martin said.

As outlined in the presentation, the project aims to improve the section of River Road by widening it to 11-foot lanes and 5-foot paved shoulders. The plan also calls for new ditches and culverts to improve road drainage. 

Despite their concerns, several of the local residents who spoke were complimentary of the way the meeting was run. 

“I think Ernie Martin has tried to be sensitive – he knows this is the oldest section of the town,” said Elder. 

Martin said the concerns he heard at the meeting were for the most party typical for such a project and not unexpected. He and his team will use the feedback to minimize impacts on local property owners, he said.

“I think there will be normal tweaks, nothing unusual,” said Martin. “There won’t be any massive changes … So I think we’re in pretty good shape.”  

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or mjunker@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

Bruce Elder of Windham shares his concerns about proposed changes to River Road during a public meeting led by Maine Department of Transportation officials. 

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