Portland seeks solutions to messy university-area intersection

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PORTLAND — City Councilor David Marshall says everyone agrees the six-way intersection of Brighton and Deering avenues and Falmouth Street near the University of Southern Maine is a mess.

But what can be done about it? Possibilities range from betters signs to slightly different traffic patterns to scrapping the existing design and creating a roundabout.

The intersection connects a residential neighborhood with a major arterial, Brighton Avenue, and and a lesser arterial, Deering, and is just a few blocks from even busier Forest Avenue. It has heavy pedestrian use and automobile traffic.

Pedestrians must cross one street at a time, hitting a crosswalk button for safe passage each time. Vehicles heading outbound on Brighton Avenue queue up about 100 feet from the traffic light. Those hoping to turn left onto Falmouth Street from Brighton are often left idling awkwardly in the middle of the intersection waiting for the stream of cars to pass in the opposite direction.

“It takes a while for cars to clear through the intersection,” said Marshall, who toured the area with Councilor Ed Suslovic in March. Both councilors are on the city’s Transportation Committee.

“The whole thing is just really inefficient,” Marshall said.

It’s also dangerous.

There have been 25 accidents over a three-year period, “which is a lot,” said Bruce Hyman, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. “But technically it’s 17 percent higher than what you would expect at that intersection given the amount of traffic that goes through it.”

That’s enough to gain the unwelcome Maine Department of Transportation designation as a “high-accident location.”

Bike lanes on Deering and Brighton are discontinuous, making the intersection a sort of no-man’s land for cyclists, and the intersection is particularly inaccessible for those with disabilities, Hyman said.

The problem has “just kind of developed over time, and now it’s obviously outdated for the traffic load it carries, and it’s time for us to reassess it,” Marshall said. 

To that end, the city will hold its second public meeting on the issue at 6 p.m., Thursday, April 26, at 6 p.m. in room 102 of the USM Wishcamper Center on Bedford Street.

Often, the city already has a plan in mind by the time it gets around to public meetings. In this case, while the a consulting team hired by the city to look at alternatives for the intersection will present its findings at the meeting, the city has no clear recommendation, Hyman said.

Officials hope the public will vet the options before they devise their preferred plan of action.

“All options are on the table for this,” Hyman said.

Solutions may be as simple as improved signs and more obvious lane assignments, he said.

But the city is also considering the leg of Brighton Avenue between Falmouth and Bedford streets. That particular stretch is now an odd triangle, with Brighton veering off and Bedford continuing straight towards Deering Avenue as a one-way street.

If the city pursued that option, it would reconfigure the end of Bedford Street as two ways.

An even more drastic option that the city could pursue would create a roundabout at the intersection. The city owns enough property surrounding the intersection to be able to do so, Hyman said.

“It’s difficult to visualize a rotary in that intersection,” University Neighborhood Organization President Carol Schiller said, in part because she is so used to the intersection as it is after 22 years living in the neighborhood.

Less intensive alternatives like improved signs could be just as effective, Schiller said.

“To me, a rotary, like having a big doughnut right there in the center, would make it even more impossible to cross,” she said, adding that she would be open to the idea if engineers and city officials presented a plan for one that seemed workable.

In a best-case scenario, the city would end Brighton Avenue at the intersection, allowing USM to create a more cohesive campus by building on what is now the stretch of Brighton between Falmouth and Bedford streets, Schiller said.

Both the city and USM looked at possibilities as the university developed half a decade ago. USM even gave the city $250,000 for whatever is ultimately done to the intersection.

“But we want to take a fresh look,” Hyman said, especially because bike and pedestrian traffic are playing greater roles in the city’s transportation plans.

In addition to the USM funding, the city will likely look for significant federal funding, as it has with a proposed project at Woodford’s Corner.

The city’s application for federal funds won’t go through until 2014 because of the two-year grant cycle for those projects, Hyman said, meaning that even if approved, the money for the Brighton-Deering-Falmouth intersection project wouldn’t be available until 2015.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or at acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

Sidebar Elements

Portland officials are deciding what to do about the intersection of Deering and Brighton avenues and Falmouth Street, seen from the University of Maine School of Law. The intersection is a high-accident area and is inefficient for both pedestrians and motorists, city bicycle and pedestrian program coordinator Bruce Hyman said.