Pathway with a purpose in Yarmouth: Improvements continue 20 years after Beth Condon's death
YARMOUTH — A painful anniversary approaches, and a public project that was borne out of tragedy continues to grow.
Twenty years ago this month, Yarmouth teenager Beth Condon was struck and killed by a drunk driver while walking along U.S. Route 1.
In the decades since the accident, the town has built a trail in her name. The Beth Condon Pathway was constructed in three phases, beginning with a short stretch that retraced some of Condon's final steps that fateful night on Aug. 28, 1993.
Now, a fourth phase for the pathway has taken shape.
On July 22, the town repainted the southbound traffic lanes on Route 1 beneath the East Main Street overpass. The new pattern reduces the number of traffic lanes from two to one. Now, a large swath of pavement is available to pedestrians and cyclists as an extension of the Beth Condon Pathway.
The segment bridges a 1,400-foot gap in the trail from a spur off East Main Street to the Hannaford shopping plaza, and brings the total length of the trail to 1.7 miles.
The newest segment is an experiment, Town Engineer Steve Johnson said. For the next several weeks, town staff and a traffic consultant will keep tabs on the traffic flow under the bridge. If the flow of southbound vehicle traffic on Route 1 isn't impeded by the lane reduction, the town could someday install a permanent trail at the location.
Preliminary opinion about the lane closure has been positive, Johnson said.
"So far, so good," he said. "There have been a few complaints, but, on the whole, we've gotten a lot of positive responses."
If the study continues to go well, the town will develop a project design and estimate for Maine Department of Transportation review. If approved at the state level, the project would then go out to bid. Construction could begin as early as next summer, Johnson said.
The design would most likely include an 11-foot-wide vehicle lane, an 8-foot pathway separated by granite curbing, and an 8-foot swath of green space, Johnson said. The under-the-bridge concept was chosen in favor of an over-the-bridge design, which had been considered during an earlier phase of the project; that proposal was deemed too costly and was nixed by Maine DOT in 2011 for safety reasons.
The first phase of the Beth Condon Pathway was completed in 1996. The concrete pathway parallels Route 1 between Portland Street and the center of town, and includes a flower garden near Town Hall.
The second phase, completed in 1998, extended the trail from downtown to Forest Falls Drive via a pedestrian bridge spanning the Royal River.
In 2002, the town conducted a feasibility study to see whether the trail could be extended north along Route 1 to Freeport, but the Interstate 295 overpass created a complicated obstacle for the pathway and the effort was shelved, Public Works Director Eric Street said.
Then, in 2008, the town constructed a third phase of the project by adding two more sections: from Forest Falls Drive to Hannaford and a short ramp linking Route 1 to East Main Street. The original plan for Phase 3 called for a contiguous segment between Forest Falls Drive and East Main Street, but planners couldn't decide how to get cyclists and pedestrians past the overpass, so a 1,400-foot segment was deleted.
Until last month when the lines on Route 1 were repainted, cyclists and pedestrians had to traverse a narrow breakdown lane under the East Main Street bridge, which was perilously close to swift-moving traffic.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Yarmouth teenagers Joe Coyne and Max Allen took a break from bicycling and sat on a park bench near the Beth Condon Pathway. Both boys use the trail often and welcomed the fourth phase of the project, they said.
"It will be much safer under the (East Main Street) bridge," Allen, 14, said. "We won't have to be so close to Route 1."
A tragic, moonlit night
Wahneta Dahlgren, an octogenarian with curly white hair, has collected reams of photos and news clippings stemming from her granddaughter's death. She has preserved them within several tidy, three-ringed binders.
Dahlgren lives a few blocks from the scene of the accident, but she was in Canada on the night of Aug. 28, 1993. Nonetheless, she recalls the story as if she were there.
"It was a hot summer night," she said. "It was a moonlit night."
Condon, who was 15 years old, had just left a video store with her boyfriend, James Young, and strolled along U.S. Route 1 from Portland Street toward the center of town. The couple walked single-file facing the southbound traffic when a car driven by Portland resident Martha Burke swerved into the breakdown lane. Young avoided danger, but Condon was struck, Dahlgren recalled.
"(Young) turned around to look for her, but she wasn't there," Dahlgren recalled. "The impact had thrown her 65 feet over the guardrail and down an embankment."
It took first responders several minutes to find Condon in a thicket of bushes. Soon afterward, the teenager with a fondness for animals and theater production was declared dead.
In the following months, pedestrian and bicycle safety became a major topic in Yarmouth. By November that year, the Town Council formed a citizens' task force to look into the issue. By February 1994, students at Yarmouth High School had completed an inventory of pedestrian walkways in the town. In March, the idea for a memorial pathway to prevent similar tragedies took shape.
The first phase of the project cost about $100,000, with the state DOT footing 80 percent of the bill, according to published reports. The rest came from private and municipal funds.
Yarmouth residents came together to contribute to the cause, Dahlgren said. Throughout town, collection jars popped up on sales counters. Volunteers held a raffle and solicited donations from nearly every Yarmouth resident in the phone book. The high school band conductor wrote a song for Condon that was recorded and sold on cassette tapes.
Burke, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 years in prison with all but eight years suspended, according to published reports.
Within three years of Condon's death, the first segment of trail was dedicated. Seventeen years later, the project continues.
"I'm immensely pleased with all the work that has been done on that pathway and I use it regularly," Dahlgren said.
She lives near the trailhead on Portland Street and walks on the southern end of the path about four times a week. During those outings, Dahlgren doesn't focus on the tragedy that took place there, she said, "but I never walk through the area without thinking about Beth.
"It's a lovely tribute to her."