Portland plan for 2-way traffic on High, State streets faces roadblocks

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PORTLAND — City Councilors on Monday, Nov. 16, are expected to vote on a feasibility plan to return two-way traffic to State and High streets.

But the plan itself and the definition of “feasibility” remain sources of contention between supporters and City Manager Jon Jennings.

Jennings said Tuesday that critical areas have not been fully addressed, including where the city would find money to accomplish the changes.

“I am not philosophically opposed to two-way traffic on State and High streets, but we need to ask these questions,” Jennings said about whether the approximate $3.2 million cost has been underestimated and how the conversion would affect services provided by the Fire and Police departments.

For District 2 Councilor David Marshall and West End Neighborhood Association President Ian Jacob, accepting the study, forwarded in June by an advisory committee, is the next step, and one that does not bind the city to the changes.

“There should be no question about what goes on the agenda; it is elementary,” Marshall said Nov. 5. The study was forwarded to the full City Council with a favorable recommendation by the Transportation, Sustainability & Energy Committee chaired by Marshall.

The plan was discussed again at a Nov. 2 workshop, where Police Chief Michael Sauschuck and acting Fire Chief David Jackson said two-way traffic could impede emergency response and create more difficult traffic jams.

Sauschuck compared two-way traffic on State and High streets to the flow on Congress Street.

“When officers respond to a call we avoid Congress Street like the plague,” he said.

The plan was considered feasible, but not recommended, by the advisory committee of business owners, residents and members of neighborhood associations in a 7-2-2 vote in June.

Jennings said the question of feasibility should have included more input from the fire and police chiefs. He also cited a memo from state Department of Transportation engineer Steve Landry, who noted the initial cost estimate would be inflated by the need to repave the streets.

Landry said key issues, such as the width of turning lanes and the true cost of snow removal, were not fully addressed. Former Public Services Director Mike Bobinsky estimated an additional $9,000 per storm would be needed to clear the two-way streets. Landry also said some questions could not be answered until the design phase of the project.

In a Nov. 4 email to Jennings, Landry said he would like to meet with Marshall and former mayor and City Councilor Anne Pringle to further explain the DOT reservations about the project.

Marshall repeatedly asked why Sauschuck did not review the plan when he was acting city manager, before Jennings took over in July, and why Landry did not contribute more of his reservations while a member of the advisory group.

“It is completely one-sided,” Marshall said. “It seems like an orchestrated campaign to derail the process and I am not too happy about it.”

Jacob called the need to repave the streets from the Casco Bay Bridge approaches to Deering Oaks Park “ludicrous” and said he took a walk on Congress Street on Nov. 4 and counted “four ambulances, numerous police cars and a couple of fire engines using Congress Street.”

State and High streets were converted to one-way traffic in 1972. Marshall said bringing back two-way traffic ties in to larger peninsula traffic plans that include ongoing work on Spring Street and an estimated $26 million plan to slow traffic and make Franklin Street more amenable to pedestrians and bicyclists.

Jacob said returning two-way traffic to State and High streets would be an economic boon that would improve safety.

“I happen to live on State Street. I find it a beneficial change for a host of reasons, (and) the overriding one is, we bring back the quality of the neighborhood,” Jacob said.

Even if the council accepts the study, Jennings said implementation should not be assumed.

“The fiscal reality is, we do not have the resources to do this any time in the near future,” 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 Nov. 5 in Portland. A study on restoring two-way traffic to State and High goes to the City Council Nov. 16.

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.