FREEPORT — A Maine Department of Transportation official and consultants got an earful Tuesday night at the first public hearing on a proposed new Desert Road interchange on Interstate 295.
Residents raised concerns about funding, bicycle and pedestrian traffic, the need for a new interchange and about the potential quick time-line for the project, which could begin construction next spring.
More than 80 residents turned out for a presentation about the plans for the interchange, which led to a discussion that spanned more than 2 1/2 hours.
“I’m shocked we are this far into the project and a decision could be next month,” Freeport resident Angela Miller-Gray said. “The biggest beneficiaries are the merchants.”
Town Council Chairman Jim Cassida said the hearing was intended to get input from the public about the proposed project and that no decisions have been made to move forward.
“None of the councilors would want to move this forward at this point,” he said, noting that questions raised at the meeting would need to be addressed first. “They have to put more work into.”
Cassida said the project has not been “fast-tracked” and that the meeting was intended to hear thoughts from the public before the process moved forward.
“We want to make sure we get the design right first,” he said.
The estimated $1 million proposal would redirect traffic across the I-295 overpass by weaving lanes in figure eights and installing traffic lights where they intersect.
The proposal would allow drivers using I-295 Exit 20 to make a direct left turn onto the Desert Road overpass without waiting at a stop sign or crossing a lane of traffic. Vehicles will drive on the bridge with the east- and west-bound directions flip-flopped, before switching back after they cross the bridge.
The design concept is known as a diverging diamond interchange. It is in use or is in the construction or planning phases in several Midwest and Mid-Atlantic cities to increase efficiency and reduce congestion, MDOT engineer Steve Landry said.
“Does it need to be done now? No,” he said, noting that funding is not in place for the project. “We’re here to talk. Nothing says it has to be this year, it could be next year.”
Residents criticized the proposed design on several grounds, with one of the most frequent concerns being that it doesn’t adequately take into account pedestrian and bicycle use.
The design has bicycles using the shoulder through the traffic lights and across the bridge. Pedestrians would have to cross several several lanes of traffic to cross the the road north and south, and would use a guarded walkway in between the traffic lanes to cross the bridge.
Desert Road resident Ruby McDermott said she rides her bike across the bridge often and the proposed plans make her nervous.
“I’m not comfortable with what you’ve done for the bicycles,” she said to the consultants. “I would ride my bike five miles to avoid that intersection.”
Landry said to make the bridge more suitable for bicycles and pedestrians, they would need to widen the bridge, which would make the project too expensive.
“Is what we’re proposing great? No,” Landry said. “But … we are not that far down the road.”
Dan Stewart, bicycle and pedestrian program manager for MDOT, said although he sees some concerns about the project, he said it is an improvement from what now exists.
“Basically, there is no shoulder on the bridge today. I’m happy there is a shoulder with this project,” he said, adding that there is no conflict with pedestrians as they go through the lights. “It seems like it is going to work pretty well for both (kinds of) users because you have more defined space.”
Other residents said the plans do not address congestion around Hunter Road on the west side of the bridge and wanted traffic lights to be installed to turn onto Desert Road.
Consulting engineer Peter Clary, of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, said the Route 1 redesign is the key to alleviating congestion at the interchange, with the proposal only helping to solve up to a 10 percent growth projection, good for about 20 years.
“Route 1 is the issue,” he said. “This is not the silver bullet that’s going to fix all this.”
Although there have been no other designs presented publicly, Landry said this proposal is meant to address some of the problems, while keeping costs down.
The town has had no formal discussions about funding for the project, but the proposed funding structure would be 50 percent from MDOT, and two 25 percent shares from the town and L.L. Bean.
“We want this to work for business, but we want it to work for the community,” said John Oliver, Bean vice president of public affairs. “There’s no urgency, but these intersections are only going to get worse.”
No other public meetings have been scheduled. But if the project moves forward, meetings would likely be scheduled next month, with final design review meetings in February and construction in the Spring, according to the proposed MDOT schedule.
Maine Department of Transportation’s conceptual drawing of a new Interstate 295 interchange at Desert Road, Exit 20, in Freeport. The design is called a diverging diamond interchange.
More than 80 people attended the first public hearing about the proposed Maine Department of Transportation Desert Road diverging diamond interchange, Tuesday, Oct. 30. The project drew fire from residents about its cost, schedule and design.