Portland City Council OKs study of State, High traffic change

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PORTLAND — Study of a proposal to restore two-way traffic on State and High streets received City Council approval Monday night.

The 8-1 vote, with Councilor David Brenerman opposed, accepts a feasibility study completed by an advisory group in June, but mandates more study on the specifics of the proposal.

“It gives staff guidance for the next steps, which would be the preliminary engineering we need to do,” Councilor David Marshall said.

Councilors also approved new regulations directed at private parking lot management companies that use immobilization devices, commonly called “Denver boots,” on vehicles parked in violation of company rules.

Monday’s 4 1/2-hour meeting was also the last full meeting for Mayor Michael Brennan, Marshall and Councilor Kevin Donoghue. Mayor-elect Ethan Strimling, and incoming Councilors Belinda Ray and Spencer Thibodeau will be sworn in at the Dec. 7 meeting.

Accepting the feasibility study does not commit the city to reversing a 43-year-old decision that established one-way traffic on State and High. A third-party study will also be required to determine possible public safety effects of the resumption of two-way traffic.

The vote came after a 90-minute public hearing mostly debating the merits of the plan, which carries an estimated $3.25 million cost, not including possible street resurfacing.

The return of two-way traffic was studied for two years by the advisory group, which forwarded – but did not endorse – the concept with a 7-2-2 vote in June.

Opponents, including Bruce Wenerstrom, general manager of the Westin Harborview Hotel on High Street, believe two-way traffic will cause traffic jams, especially outside the hotel when people are pulling up to unload and check in.

“Is it feasible, yes it is,” he said. “(But) is it practical, does it make common sense?”

Supporters, including resident David LaCasse, said the move would enhance safety and bring economic benefits because of calmer traffic.

“(It is) a well thought-out, data-driven report confirming the conversion was possible,” he said. “This area will never reach its potential until it becomes pedestrian centered.”

City Manager Jon Jennings has said the report is short on input from public safety officials and fails to answer funding questions.

Jennings and Marshall, along with former City Councilor Anne Pringle, met with officials from the Maine Department of Transportation Monday to review the study and remaining issues surrounding the conversion process.

Marshall said he was pleased with the meetings, and predicted more study would bring mixed results.

“I do think there is going to be a mixed bag in terms of public safety responses,” he said.

He reiterated his support for changing the traffic patterns, especially because the traffic flow effects are minimal.

“What we are really talking about is a two to four minute delay,” Marshall said.

Lacing the boots

With Councilors Ed Suslovic, Jill Duson and Nick Mavodones Jr. opposed, councilors approved new rules that primarily govern Unified Parking Partners.

The company manages lots throughout the city’s peninsula, largely using a “pay-and-display” method, where customers pay at central meters and leave the receipts visible on their dashboards.

The company, which began doing business in 2013, places boots on vehicles and charges owners $40 or $70 for their removal, depending on whether the customer has an expired receipt or did not pay at all.

The city ordinance was amended to allow some temporary signs at lots where Unified manages spaces during business off-hours. Company owner Dan McNutt has been supportive of the regulation effort. 

The new rules require signs showing the lots are not city-owned, charge an annual $100 licensing fee, and require a registry of the owners’ employees to show none have recent felony convictions. The booting and removal process must also be explained on parking lot signs.

Suslovic said the rules are not necessary.

“I have yet to be convinced this is actually a problem,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Traffic moves through the intersection of State and Congress streets in Portland Nov. 5. On Monday, city councilors accepted a feasibility study on restoring two-way traffic.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.