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Rough road: Congress Street paving project creates obstacles for Portland bicyclists

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Rough road: Congress Street paving project creates obstacles for Portland bicyclists

PORTLAND — Repaving of outer Congress Street was intended to make the roadway more accessible to all forms of transportation.

But some bicyclists say the project has made their travel more dangerous than ever.

"We were so excited and hopeful" when the project began, said Rachel Stamieszkin, a Cape Elizabeth resident who regularly bikes to her job at UNUM.

"We always felt like we were taking our life into our own hands riding on Congress Street," Stamieszkin said. "Now it's just treacherous."

A city official blamed the situation on an "oversight."

The first phase of the project, which began in June and was finished early this month, repaved Congress Street from Stevens Avenue to Johnson Road. It is a cooperative effort between the city and the Maine Department of Transportation, which granted the city's request to reduce the number of lanes from two in each direction to one in some places.

It also made the lanes narrower, created new turning lanes, widened shoulders, and made a "climbing lane" for cyclists on the eastbound side between Frost Street and Westgate Plaza.

The changes, based on feedback from residents, bicycling advocates, and a 2007 road corridor study, were meant to slow traffic and make the street more inviting to non-motorized commuters.

The city asked the DOT to lay new traffic pattern paint on the first layer of road surface, now completed, and to wait several weeks while feedback is gathered from commuters via an online survey and public meetings.

Normally, the final road surface would have been placed immediately after the first, city and DOT officials said. On outer Congress Street, the project's final paving phase was pushed back to August to allow for the data collection.

But the new lane patterns and the delay in finishing the project has made travelling the street a daring proposition for bicyclists, said Stamieszkin's husband, Piotrek, who also bikes to work at UNUM.

Where the street has been consolidated from four lanes to one in each direction, with a turning lane in the middle, Piotrek Stamieszkin said, the travel lanes – reduced from 12 feet wide to 11 feet – are now too narrow for large trucks. He said that leaves tractor-trailers with less than a foot of clearance on either side.

"Big trucks have a hard time staying in the lanes," Stamieszkin said.

While the narrower lanes were meant to force vehicles to slow down, and resulted in some road shoulders becoming wider, it hasn't helped cyclists very much, he said.

Stamieszkin said the promise of slower traffic provides a mere "illusion of safety."

That's because outer Congress Street does not have an actual bike lane; cyclists who use the road must ride on the shoulder. In some places, like the approach to Westbrook Street from either direction, the shoulder is no more than a foot wide.

In other places, it is roomier. But the newly paved initial road surface was spread only to within a foot or two of the curb. This leaves the shoulder with a two-inch lip where the new pavement meets the old asphalt, effectively cutting cyclists' path in half.

The old pavement is also frequently scarred and grooved, and now acts as a trough between the new, taller road surface and the curb; pebbles, trash, and other detritus collect in the lower space. Bicycle riders prefer to stay on the new surface, which puts them closer to the cars and trucks, despite the increased shoulder width.

"It sounds good," Stamieszkin said. "But really, there's no place to go."

Leaving some room between a new road surface and the curb is a common practice that ensures streets continue to drain properly, the city's director of public services, Mike Bobinsky, said.

But cutting the main path for cyclists in half was "an oversight on our part and the contractor's part," he said Monday.

When the final asphalt layer is laid, the road surface will stretch all the way to the curb, city and DOT officials said.

The city and DOT will also make other tweaks to their new plan during the final surfacing phase, including an attempt at making the width of the shoulder more consistent throughout the freshly paved section, Bobinsky said.

"Admittedly, it's not the standard bike lane that we would see on other streets," he said. "The intention is to provide a 2 1/2-foot shoulder along the majority of the corridor."

Bobinsky encouraged riders and motorists with complaints or suggestions to give the city their feedback, either through an online survey, found at www.mainedot.gov/congressst/, or by calling Public Services Department engineer Gretel Varney at 874-8801. 

There is also a public meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. on July 17 at the Italian Heritage Center, 40 Westland Ave.

After considering public comments, the DOT will complete the paving, with new and final changes to the traffic patterns and lanes, Bobinsky said.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.