South Portland-Gorham spur depends on turnpike widening in Portland

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PORTLAND — The Maine Turnpike Authority’s plans to widen the highway through the city must be a done deal before it tackles a proposed toll road to Gorham, the highway’s top executive said Monday.

“We’ve got to get ready for Gorham,” Peter Mills, turnpike authority executive director, said. “We’re going one step at a time.”

The Legislature last spring passed a bill allowing the authority to borrow up to $150 million to study, plan and construct a Gorham connector to alleviate commuter congestion in the rapidly growing region.

Taking the Portland projects into account, engineering on the Gorham plan would not start until the early part of the next decade, Mill said.

Priority construction projects include widening the turnpike through Portland to six lanes, replacing an aging bridge, modifying three other bridges, and revamping Exit 45 in South Portland.

“At present we are in the middle of public engagement relating to widening of the turnpike to six lanes around Portland, both to relieve congestion on the turnpike itself and to pull traffic away from I-295,” Mills said.

The turnpike authority will hear public comment about the proposed widening in a meeting at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 24, at the turnpike headquarters, 2360 Congress St..

“We already own the real estate,” Mills said.

Construction of the turnpike widening from Exit 44 to Exit 52 or 53 could begin in 2021 and would cost $30.7 million, according to the turnpike authority’s four-year plan.

Plans for a five-mile toll connector to Gorham, one of the state’s fastest growing communities, would follow the widening and associated projects.

The Gorham connector would likely link Exit 45 in South Portland with the Bernard P. Rines Bypass roundabout on Route 114 (South Street) in Gorham. The Gorham connector is aimed at reducing traffic congestion in the routes 22 and 114 corridor in Gorham, Scarborough, South Portland and Westbrook.

“The four towns have been very supportive of getting this (Gorham connector) built,” Mills said.

Gorham Zoning Administrator David Galbraith on Monday said “traffic is certainly a huge issue which needs to be taken care of.”

The Bernard P. Rines Bypass of Gorham Village opened in December 2008, but it doesn’t sufficiently handle bumper-to-bumper, rush-hour traffic in the overlap of Route 22 and Route 114.

The turnpike authority first must gear up to handle additional traffic flow that a connector would funnel from Gorham.

One priority is a $10.1 million replacement of the aging Cummings Road Bridge over the turnpike in Scarborough. The turnpike authority plans say it should be widened from two lanes to four to handle increasing local traffic.

The Cummings Road Bridge is planned for construction in two construction seasons, 2019 and 2020, Mills said.

In connection with turnpike widening, three other bridges would require modifications to accommodate another turnpike lane in each direction. They are bridges over the Stroudwater River, which would require $10.8 million in modifications; Warren Avenue in Portland, $11.6 million, and a bridge over the Maine Central Railroad in Portland, $8.9 million.

The Exit 45 interchange improvement will cost $35 million. The toll plaza at Exit 45 would be replaced with two smaller plazas, beefing up capacity in expectation of  handling Gorham connector traffic.

“The Exit 45 project, which includes rebuilding the associated bridge over the turnpike, may be scheduled for the period between 2019 and 2021, but this is subject to review and approval by the turnpike board at our next meeting on Dec. 21,” Mills said.

A public study would be required for a Gorham connector. Under the Sensible Transportation Act, the turnpike authority would have to hear public input and prove need of a connector in a review of options.

A potential alternative identified in a $1 million study a few years ago by the turnpike authority, Maine Department of Transportation and Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System would be widening and improving existing roads along with increasing public transit.

But widening existing roads could require removal of homes. Mills said Monday Gorham and Scarborough want to retain residential neighborhoods along Route 22 and Route 114.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would also have to be satisfied with a Gorham connector plan, because the work would include filling some wetland, Mills said.

Robert Lowell can be reached at 854-2577 or rlowell@keepmecurrent.com.

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