PORTLAND — Residents told members of a city panel Monday night that converting two of Portland’s busiest downtown thruways from one-way streets to two-way streets could help restore the “neighborhood feel” along those routes.
But others questioned the plan to add the extra directions to State and High streets, which have each been one way for 42 years.
“I’m flummoxed at the idea of running that with two-way traffic,” Deering Street resident Steve Mitchell said. “(I don’t like) the idea of stepping off the curb into two lanes traveling at that rate. I don’t think making it two ways is simplifying it. I think it’s frightful.”
Carol Morris, moderator for the public hearing, said opening the two streets to two-way traffic is not a foregone conclusion.
She said the city must upgrade its aging traffic lights along the two streets soon and is investigating whether other traffic changes make sense as well before it makes those investments.
“We’re not here to try and prove that it’s better to go two ways,” she said. “We’re here to see if maybe it might be.”
The two streets serve as the primary corridors for traffic traveling on and off the Casco Bay Bridge to South Portland. As such, the streets are used as major commuter connections between Interstate 295 and the Knightville area of South Portland and, by extension, pipelines to and from Southern Maine Community College and Portland Head Light in nearby Cape Elizabeth.
High Street passes by such notable Portland locations as Congress Square and the Portland Museum of Art, while State Street runs through Longfellow Square in the shadow of the city’s landmark statue of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Both streets are one way, starting in Portland’s popular Deering Oaks Park.
Although the singular directions of State and High streets may be confusing to drivers encountering them for the first time, they’ve been one way for so long – since 1972 – that changing them to accommodate two-way traffic would be a significant change for commuters.
On Monday night, members of a city committee charged with reviewing the possible change held a public hearing on the prospect.
Frank Reilly of York Street told Morris and Tom Errico, a traffic engineer from consulting firm TY Lin International, that making such a dramatic change to city traffic patterns could be a lot of work with little discernible payoff.
“I don’t understand yet the purpose for changing something that doesn’t need changing,” Reilly said Monday night. “What is this going to achieve? It seems like a major undertaking to begin with, with so much else that needs attention in the city.”
But Arthur Fink of Peaks Island said making the streets two-way would restore pedestrian connectivity between neighborhood blocks divided by the thoroughfares.
“I see this as a restoration, removing the change (from one way to two ways) that was made several decades ago,” Fink said. “High and State streets are no longer promenades, they’re highways. They separate the city.”
Keri Lord of Deering Street agreed, saying the changes could help “give us back our residential neighborhoods.” Others said switching to two-way streets could elevate property values along State and High streets or make the corridors more attractive to store-front businesses.
“State and High streets tend to isolate us. They’re like freeways,” Lord said. “We want to feel like we’re in a more comfortable neighborhood, where we can easily cross the streets.”
Oakdale neighborhood resident Scott Patterson was among those who suggested the section of State Street that bisects Deering Oaks Park be eliminated, returning the green space to its original state as a single, larger park.
TY Lin is conducting a study on the potential traffic pattern alterations that will be turned over to city officials in April of 2015, and the City Council last spring assembled the project advisory panel to provide input on that report.
Members of the advisory group include Lauren Wayne, general manager of The State Theatre; Steve Landry of the Maine Department of Transportation; David Robinson of Greater Portland Landmarks; Frank Turek of Friends of Congress Square Park, and representatives from several businesses and neighborhood associations.
Errico said intersections along High and State streets were determined by state transportation officials to be so-called “high-crash locations.”
For example, Errico said, the intersection of State Street with Marginal Way and Forest Avenue saw 59 car crashes over three years from 2011-2013, an average of nearly 20 per year.
However, changing High and State to two-way streets and adding the turning lanes that likely would be necessary could also cannibalize street parking, Errico said.
Cars travel one way on State Street in Portland on Monday, Sept. 8.