Turnpike needs more lanes to ease congestion, official says

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WESTBROOOK — Now is the time to widen to six lanes one of the most heavily used sections of the 70-year old Maine Turnpike, its top official told the City Council this week.

Peter Mills, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, said widening nine miles of the turnpike – between Scarborough and Falmouth – would ease traffic congestion in the greater Portland area.

“I think this region will suffer from what I’ll call a mobility crisis if we don’t do this,” Mills said said at a workshop before the June 18 City Council meeting.

The turnpike was originally built in the 1940s with two lanes in each direction from Kittery to Portland. Shortly thereafter it was extended to Augusta, and eventually to Houlton. Over time the turnpike was widened to six lanes from York to Scarborough, where it dips back to four lanes until it crosses into Canada near Houlton.

Mills said the Turnpike Authority debated widening the turnpike from Exit 44 to Exit 53 in 2005, 2006 and 2007, but then the 2008 recession hit, traffic subsided a bit and the plan was put on hold.

“It put that thinking on the back burner, but we have really had very substantial growth (in traffic numbers) in the last five or six years … not just on that section, but on the turnpike as a whole,” Mills said. “It’s become evident that we have a serious capacity problem that is already a burden.”

He said it is a problem that will “get worse as time goes on.”

Traffic in the area of the turnpike is growing by 3 percent annually. The average daily traffic volumes range from 33,800 on the section between Exit 52 and Exit 53, to 52,000 along the section of the turnpike between Exit 46 and 47. In summer daily traffic can be as much as 62,000 vehicles a day.

Because of the Sensible Transportation Policy Act, which requires alternatives be looked at when major highway construction projects are proposed, the Portland Area Mainline Needs Assessment Public Advisory Committee looked at more than a dozen alternatives. Alternatives included toll system changes; improving regional bus or commuter rail transit and introducing high-occupancy vehicle or high-occupancy toll lanes. The committee is made of representatives of Falmouth, Portland, South Portland, Scarborough and Westbrook, as well as other groups an organizations.

According to a draft of the Portland Mainline Study by HNTB, an infrastructure solutions company with an office on County Road, if nothing is done, the turnpike between Exit 44 in Scarborough and Exit 53 in Falmouth is “expected to be significantly at, or over capacity by year 2040, with a 67 percent increased travel time in the morning peak hours and 80 percent increased travel time in the afternoon peak hours.

Widening the turnpike to allow three lanes of traffic in each direction, according to the report, would increase capacity, reduce crashes on the turnpike by nearly 30 percent, but also have potential wetland and environmental impacts, although Mills expects those to be minor.

The widening project is expected to cost $142 million dollars and an extra $500,000 in annual roadway maintenance costs. Mills said the Maine Turnpike Authority already owns enough land on either side of the existing highway to extend to six lanes from Scarborough to Falmouth.

Councilor Lynda Adams asked Mills what the widening initiative would mean for the Gorham connector proposal, which would create a spur that would connect the turnpike, possibly around Exit 45 in South Portland, to the roundabout near South Street in Gorham in an effort to reduce traffic congestion on Route 114 and Route 22 in that area. Mills said that project is contingent on how the widening proposal plays out.

“There is no way we would consider doing this without fixing the capacity issue on the mainline. We have to control the mobility capacity issues around greater Portland first,” he said.

If something happens with the Gorham connector, it would likely be in the next three to four years, if not sooner.

“If you were ever going to build such a thing, you’d probably want to build it sooner rather than later because there is a lot of development pressure, as you well know, on all of this open land west of here,” Mills said.

Westbrook Council Vice President John O’Hara said he supports the widening effort.

“Don’t stop there, as far as I am concerned. Go all the way up to the end of the state,” he said.

With the study nearing completion, Paul Godfrey, a project manager at HTNB said turnpike officials are reaching out to update the communities that would be impacted.

“We are working with the communities to get feedback to make sure we haven’t missed anything,” he said.

Based on that feedback and the study, HTNB will make a final recommendation, which will be acted upon by the Maine Turnpike Authority Board of Directors.

HTNB’s final report is expected to be completed in July.

“I think it is important we are up to date on what’s going on because it is going to affect all of us,” said Westbrook City Councilor Ann Peoples, who is a member of the action committee, which has been meeting on the topic since spring 2017.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com or on Twitter @mkelleynews

Widening the turnpike from Exit 44 in Scarborough to Exit 53 in Falmouth is one of the ideas the Maine Turnpike Authority is comtemplating to ease congestion in greater Portland.

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