Portland panel passes on unanswered State, High street traffic questions

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PORTLAND — Two-way traffic on State and High streets is feasible, according to the advisory committee that has studied the streets for almost a year.

But in its final meeting on June 3 at the Portland Public Library, the group stopped short of advising a change in the 43-year-old one-way traffic pattern.

By a 7-2-2 vote, with State Theater owner Lauren Wayne and Ron Spinella of the Bayside Neighborhood Association opposed, the committee forwarded its data and opinion to the City Council, where the Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee, chaired by Councilor David Marshall, will review the findings and vote.

Four study committee members were unable to attend the meeting.

Marshall said June 5 he hopes his committee can work on the data later this summer, while also considering wider budget questions.

“There are some budgetary line items in there, but proportionately they are relatively small,” Marshall said.

Future City Council funding will also be viewed in light of other needs in the annual capital improvements plan.

The conversion cost was estimated at nearly $3.23 million by Tom Errico of the Falmouth-based office of T.Y. Lin International.

New traffic signals will cost at least $2 million, Errico said, and will be needed whether or not the streets revert to two-way traffic. The remainder would be spent mostly on curb and lane realignments, and intersection work at State and York streets, at the northern end of the Casco Bay Bridge.

Errico’s estimate does not include the additional $72,000 to $91,000 estimated for full winter maintenance and snow clearing, based on eight to 10 winter storms annually.

Marshall noted that is a 7.6 percent increase in the Public Services winter maintenance budget, and defended the extra spending.

“To call this expensive is quite silly,” he said.

St. Luke’s Church Dean Ben Shambaugh, a nonvoting community adviser to the study group, disagreed. He said the added expense would be hard to justify if the city is already considering reducing services for the homeless and some immigrants.

The study produced a matrix of pros and cons for returning two-way traffic to the streets, including reduced speed limits, better access for pedestrians and bicyclists, and better access to some West End side streets.

Errico said more data on vehicle speeds showed most speeding occurs during peak rush-hour traffic, and most commercial deliveries are made on side streets.

Ian Jacob, president of the West End Neighborhood Association, supported saying the conversion is feasible and advisable, based on the economic benefits that could come from better pedestrian and bicycle access.

“If we only think about the cars,” Jacob said, “then this does not make sense.

But claims of possible increased real estate values and a reduction in crime were called “specious” by community adviser Chris O’Neil of the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce.

Wayne, meanwhile, is concerned about the negative impact of two-way traffic because artists playing at the State Theater arrive with trucks that need at least one lane closed on High Street, between Congress and Deering streets, to maneuver into the service alley behind the theater.

Traffic issues could also be compounded on that section of the street by valet parking services at the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

Conversion may also require the elimination of 30 parking spaces on the streets from Deering Oaks Park to the Casco Bay Bridge. Errico’s estimates showed a gain of spaces near the park, but a loss of 27 spaces on State and High between York and Congress, with 20 of those on State Street.

Former City Councilor and Mayor Anne Pringle, representing Friends of Deering Oaks Park, said those losses are based on adding turning lanes she thought would not be immediately necessary.

Maine Department of Transportation traffic engineer Steve Landry disagreed, and predicted “total gridlock” without the dedicated lanes.

Landry also noted the state will have the final say on the conversion, because the streets are part of state Route 77, which runs into South Portland and Cape Elizabeth.

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

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.