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Meeting to address problematic Portland intersection near USM

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Meeting to address problematic Portland intersection near USM

PORTLAND — A City Council committee will tackle two issues Wednesday that may mean big changes for the city's University neighborhood – or as it may someday be known, the Education District.

The Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee will give feedback on proposed traffic reconfiguration at the congested, six-legged intersection of Falmouth Street and Brighton and Deering avenues, near the University of Southern Maine.

In addition, the committee will get an update on a new system of wayfinding signs that will guide drivers throughout the peninsula, and could also include the University neighborhood.

The Falmouth-Brighton-Deering intersection has long been a trouble spot for the city.

The junction brings together two arterials, Brighton and Deering avenues, with Falmouth Street, which carries heavy traffic to USM. Vehicles sometimes have to queue up 100 feet before the traffic lights, or are left stranded in the broad intersection when a signal changes. Students and pedestrians are everywhere, but often have to hop-scotch from corner to corner, hitting a crosswalk button each time.

The mess creates confusion and congestion – as well as an accident rate 17 percent higher than typical for the intersection's traffic volume, according to the city. The state Department of Transportation designates the area a "high-accident location."

Last year, the city began studying alternative designs for the intersection, with the help of funds from the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System. Based on a series of public meetings, five concepts for the reconfiguration were developed; two were vetted and refined further.

One concept calls for the creation of vehicle roundabouts at the intersection and at the smaller intersection of Deering Avenue and Bedford Street, a block away. The other concept would add sets of traffic signals at each intersection.

Both schemes would eliminate the portion of Brighton Avenue that now runs between Bedford and Falmouth streets.

In response to feedback from the committee last November, city planners have provided more detail about possible changes in rights-of-way for neighboring properties, as well as the costs involved.

The traffic-signal concept would cost about $1.3 million to implement, according to a memo from the city. The roundabout concept would have construction costs of $1.5 million.

Planners are recommending the roundabouts, while residents have expressed mixed feelings. For its part, USM is taking a hands-off approach, although it has already promised to provide $250,000 to help fund whatever improvements are made.

"(The university) didn't want to seem as if we pushing our weight around," USM Public Affairs Executive Director Bob Caswell said last week at a meeting of the University Neighborhood Organization. "We're for any solution that comes from the public process." 

Besides a new traffic route, new signs may also someday be an addition to the University neighborhood.

Last year, the city began developing a new system of vehicle way-finding signs that would replace the aging and sometimes inaccurate ones that now guide motorists.

Consistent, recognizable color coding will be used to guide drivers to six districts within the city: the East and West Ends, downtown, the waterfront, Bayside and Parkside. Other signs will direct travelers to popular sites and cultural attractions within the districts.

The signs will be installed at key intersections within the peninsula, as well as near USM – prompting UNO President Carol Schiller to ask the city last fall if a seventh zone, the Education District, could be added to the project.

The district would cover a broad swath of the city, from USM west in a rough triangle bounded by Forest, Brighton and Stevens avenues.

The additional planning would cost $18,000, not including the expense of the signs, according to a memo from the project consultant, Brunswick-based Woodworth Associates.

Both USM and the University of New England, whose Portland campus is at 716 Stevens Ave., have pledged contributions of $1,800 to defray those costs, according to a city memo.

"The goal is just to create a better linkage, between the peninsula and (the neighborhood) so that people can come here and enjoy everything we have," Schiller said at the meeting. "And the timing seems perfect."

Wednesday's TSE Committee meeting is at 5:30 p.m. in City Hall. 

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