Buses to take priority along Portland's Congress Street

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PORTLAND — Taking the bus along Congress Street could soon be a smoother, more efficient ride, thanks to a new traffic plan approved Monday night by the City Council.

The council voted unanimously to approve the recommendations of a long-awaited report on making Congress Street a “bus priority corridor” between State and Franklin streets.

The stretch is traveled by each of the city’s METRO buses, two buses operated by the city of South Portland, and ShuttleBus-ZOOM, which travels between Portland and the Biddeford area.

Under the plan, instead of pulling to the side of the street, out of traffic, to pick up or drop off passengers, the buses will stop in the travel lane. The recommendations include installing five bus shelters, four of which would be placed in the carved-out lanes where buses now pull over, instead of on the sidewalk.

By eliminating the need for buses to re-enter the traffic flow after a stop, the city hopes to keep them running on time.

Holm Avenue resident Robert Haines said he is worried that buses stopped in traffic will cause downtown traffic jams and frustrate drivers, especially tourists.

“After they’re caught in traffic a couple times, you won’t see them again. They’ll find someplace else to go,” he told the council.

But city Senior Planner Bill Needelman said that despite the inconvenience, the result of the in-line stops will be more predictable bus arrivals and smoother-flowing traffic.

“The goal is having traffic move better for everybody, but have everybody move at the speed of the bus,” he said.

The in-line stops will be tested with painted pavement lines at first, so that traffic engineers can gauge the impact of the stops before permanently adjusting the curbing, Needelman added.

In addition, the corridor plan also tries to improve traffic flow by eliminating traffic signals at Brown and Casco streets, while improving the pedestrian crosswalks there with new surfacing and signs.

Other changes include sign improvements and better coordination of signals between State and Pearl streets.

Creating the bus corridor is expected to cost about $428,000, according to a city memo, with the bus shelters alone priced at $125,000. The city hopes to receive $100,000 from the Federal Transit Administration to help pay for the project; the balance would be funded in the city’s 2014 capital improvement budget.

The bus corridor concept was first proposed in the city’s 2009 Peninsula Transit Study, and has been studied since 2011 with the help the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System and the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

The council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee scaled down an earlier version of the plan last year in response to concerns of downtown business owners.

“While (this plan) might not be everything everyone wanted, it’s a good, solid step in the right direction,” Mayor Michael Brennan said.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.