Delays expected as I-295 bridge work continues

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PORTLAND — Motorists in Portland should prepare for some delays this summer as the Maine Department of Transportation continues its bridge rehabilitation project along I-295.

On Tuesday the department unveiled its plans for a $7.9 million dollar bridge rehabilitation projects spanning several miles of I-295 scheduled to start in April. The plan, which came in just under the estimated $8 million mark, is the third of four years of planned improvements.

“This is a very important project for Portland and for Maine,” said Joyce Taylor, director of the Bureau of Project Development for the department. “It’s a project that will ensure and maintain a high level of quality and safety on one of Maine’s most traveled sections of highway.”

All of this year’s work will take place in the northbound lanes of I-295 and is divided into five work zones. Motorists should be aware that in some of the work zones, on and off ramps will be closed to ease construction.

The first zone involves the I-295 overpass that crosses the Maine Turnpike Approach road; work zone two will involve the overpass crossing Westbrook Street. In these two sections all on and off ramps will remain open and work is expected to be completed by Sept. 1. Some night paving will continue through October, weather permitting.

Work zones three and four present an expected challenge.

“Work zone three is the big challenging section, it is what I kind of think of as last year’s Tukey’s,” said David Sherlock, bridge program manager for the Maine DOT. “There are seven bridges from Fore River right along through the Portland Connector, Congress Street, Park Avenue, St. John, St. James and there are a couple of railroad bridges through there as well.”

In work zone three both the Park Avenue and Congress Street on ramps will be closed; all off ramps will remain open. Two out of the three lanes in this section will remain open throughout construction.

Work zone four is the Forest Avenue, Preble Street and Franklin Street section of I-295.

“In this section there will be some ramp closures again,” said Sherlock. “The northbound off ramp and what we call the eastbound on ramp (Franklin Street) will remain closed during this work because we need the width in order to do this in phases. There is not enough room for traffic to safely maneuver on those ramps.”

The Washington Avenue on-ramp is labeled as work zone five. In this section, the on ramp will remain open and, like work zones one and two, work is expected to be completed by Sept. 1 with some night paving continuing into October.

With construction comes the possibility of accidents, but the Maine DOT has partnered with Maine State Police to help ensure the work can be completed while minimizing the chance for accidents and traffic delays.

“Our primary concern is safety. Motorists need to be alert, aware and patient but also understanding of the importance of this project to the greater Portland area and the state of Maine,” Taylor said. “Be prepared for an extra 10 to 15 minutes of traffic delay. Really last year it went very smoothly except when there was an accident.”

Sgt. Jonathan Shapiro of the Maine State Police outlined several safety measures that motorists should follow to help things move along smoothly.

“(Construction zones are) a reduced speed zone with a speed limit of 45 miles per hour, they should also make sure that if the traffic conditions are worse they should be slowing down,” he said. “They should keep a good distance between vehicles to ensure that they can prevent collisions and also limit any and all distractions while going through those zones. I would also like the motoring public to remember that the fines are doubled for any violations going through those zones.”

Shapiro and Patrick Moody of AAA Northern New England also outlined how to deal with minor motor vehicle accidents that occur within work zones.

“Traditionally, people have stopped right in the construction zone, which has caused a lot of traffic problems as well as additional traffic crashes,” Shapiro continued. “This is a bit of a departure from past practice in the state of Maine but we are asking that if you are involved in a minor accident and you can safely move from the accident to an area where there is no construction and it is safe to pull over, that is what we are asking you to do.”

Moody notes that nationally, 20 percent of all fatal traffic collisions are a result of a secondary collision caused by people not being aware of their surroundings.

“We really ask that motorists raise their level of awareness going through construction zones and pay close attention to the driving task at hand,” he said. “Most of us are unconsciously competent when we drive. You drive this road, this stretch of 295, on a daily basis and you don’t really think a whole lot about what you are doing out there. When our conditions change with the weather and construction zones, you need to start thinking about being consciously competent and really focusing on the driving task at hand.”

In hopes of eliminating, or at least reducing, accidents and other traffic delays, the Maine DOT and the city of Portland have set up notification systems that will allow commuters and residents to receive by-the-minute updates on traffic conditions.

The Maine DOT and Maine State Police both urge motorists to check updates, follow safety guidelines and seek alternate routes to ease driver frustration throughout the construction process.

“A lot of thought went into our plan this year. We did a lot of traffic modeling on how to sequence the work in order to minimize the impact to motorists.” said Taylor. “However, there still will be some pain.”

Amber Cronin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 115 or Follow Amber on Twitter: @croninamber.