CAPE ELIZABETH — After years of debate, Town Councilors voted 4-3 Wednesday night against installing a traffic light at the intersection of Ocean House, Scott Dyer and Shore roads. They also voted to turn down state and federal funding for the project.
The special meeting on Aug. 26 ended nearly 40 years of discussion about traffic improvements at town center and gave residents their final say on the subject. Nearly 30 residents came to the meeting, and speakers were allowed a total of 15 minutes of public comment.
Gwyneth Maguire spoke in favor of the traffic light, arguing that residents who could more easily travel along Route 77 (Ocean House Road) without fear of vehicle traffic would in turn stimulate the local economy.
Former Councilor Mary Ann Lynch said the addition of the traffic light would be a “comprehensive improvement” to the town center.
But Linda Johnson of 1235 Shore Road and three other residents spoke against the intersection improvements.
“This hasn’t been the time to do this since 1968, and the town does not want it,” Johnson said. “It is clear people are against this.”
According to council Chairman Jim Rowe, the intersection debate is an “inherited issue” that began in 1968. The improvements were recommended as part of the Town Center Plan in the 1980s, and there have been numerous traffic studies completed since then.
Last September, the project was priced at $1.1 million by the Maine Department of Transportation, with $400,000 of the cost to be paid by a grant from the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System. The council tabled discussions on this project twice, once in November of last year, and once in May.
In July, MDOT officials decided they couldn’t wait any longer and sent a letter urging the town to use the available federal and state funds, or lose the money.
Councilors David Sherman, Paul McKenney and Rowe voted in favor of the traffic light and intersection improvements, while Councilors Anne Swift-Kayatta, David Backer, Sara Lennon and Penny Jordan overruled their votes.
Most councilors who opposed the project said cost was a major consideration. Swift-Kayatta said an expected reduction in federal and school funding and the possible loss of excise taxes could be financially staggering for the town.
“Now is the time to be fiscally prudent and conserve our resources,” she said.
Backer said spending $700,000 on a traffic light in the current economic climate would be unwise. He said other areas such as energy efficiencies could generate a greater return than installing a traffic light.
“This is not free money,” he said. “We have an obligation to not succumb to the great allure of money.”
Rowe called the intersection project one of the most “controversial, interesting and challenging” issues the council has faced.
He argued the improvements would include infrastructure, utility maintenance, waste-water drainage and sidewalk improvements, in addition to the traffic light. He said while the price tag may be significant now, the estimates were done when construction and material costs were higher.
“The best time to invest is now,” he said. “The Town Council has been debating this for decades, and this will not improve on its own.”
Sherman said the town center “clearly needs improvement.” He said if the changes for Cape Elizabeth include a new library and a Shore Road pathway leading people to the center of town, a light will be mandatory and, eventually, more costly.
“I believe the town center will lay the groundwork for future development,” he said. “Now is the time to do this.”
In addition to the 4-3 vote against the traffic light, the council voted 5-2 to reject nearly $365,000 in federal and state finding for the project. The vote allows Town Manager Michael McGovern to terminate the MDOT’s proposed design improvements and decline the PACTS grant. Only McKenney and Sherman were opposed.
Although the council voted against the traffic light, Lennon will lead a group called the Town Center Pedestrian Review Committee, which was formed by Rowe in July to continue the discussion on town center traffic issues.
The group, made up of School Board member Mary Townsend, state Rep. and former Councilor Cynthia Dill, AAA of Northern New England President Tom Kinley of Shore Road and Lennon, will list concerns and come up with alternatives and suggestions to present to the council.
“The safety issue is paramount, and we can devise a good solution,” Lennon said. “This is not the end of the problem, I hope it is the beginning of the discussion.”
The next council meeting will be a workshop on Thursday, Sept. 3, at the Thomas Memorial Library. McGovern encouraged residents to check the town Web site because the location may be changed.
Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext 110 or firstname.lastname@example.org