SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council directed the city manager on Monday to find $12,000 for a feasibility study of a bicycle and pedestrian bridge that would make a critical connection in the greater Portland trail network.
The West End Trails Committee, part of the South Portland Land Trust, presented a conceptual plan to the council in a workshop Monday night. The group envisions a bridge spanning Long Creek near Interstate 295 Exit 4.
One alternative could have the bridge land just north of the Portland International Jetport’s crosswind runway. If that alternative is not feasible, the bridge could be moved further south, crossing a wider expanse of Long Creek. The preliminary cost projection of the bridge is about $5 million.
The council directive to fund a feasibility study is the latest in a series of lobbying victories for bicycle enthusiasts, who convinced the Department of Transportation to incorporate bicycle and pedestrian features into the $55 million replacement of the Veterans Memorial Bridge.
DOT Bike and Pedestrian Program Manager Dan Stewart said engineers will be asked to build a separate 12-foot bike lane on the downstream side of the bridge when the project goes out to bid on July 27. The DOT freed another $1.25 million in funds to connect the bike trail from the bridge to an existing bike lane near the Sprague energy facility, which connects to Main Street in South Portland.
Stewart said the bridge project, to be completed by October 2012, will better align the intersection on the Portland side. Also, there will be no right turn on red coming off the bridge and a left-turn/through lane from the bridge will be changed to a left-turn only to reduce rear-end crashes.
Meanwhile, local planners and bike enthusiasts said the timing is right to immediately study a potential connection to South Portland’s west end because there are several projects underway or in the planning stage.
South Portland and the DOT are preparing to begin a preliminary
engineering report about making Exit 4 a full-service interchange by
adding southbound interstate access and a northbound off-ramp to
Lincoln Street in South Portland. Meanwhile, the Jetport is planning to expand its crosswind runway to meet aviation safety guidelines, but has not yet received a necessary zone change from the South Portland City Council.
Jetport Director Paul Bradbury said the Jetport would allow a bridge to land south of its crosswind runway and give WET an easement across its land to a road being planned around Brick Hill that would connect to Jetport Plaza Road.
WET member Shay Bellas said this could be the only chance to build the pedestrian bridge.
“There’s construction going on both sides” of Long Creek, Bellas said. “There’s no way after the fact we’ll be able to come in and make this happen. But if we have all of the stakeholders at the table now and everyone has buy-in we can make it happen.”
Stewart said that if a bike-ped bridge is feasible, DOT is willing to incorporate pedestrian and bike elements into the redesign. The DOT, however, needs to know the feasibility of the bike-ped bridge soon, since it would affect the VMB project, which would need to include a path to go under the bridge on the South Portland side to take bikers and pedestrians safely where they need to be to access a potential bridge.
Owens McCullough, an engineer with Sebago Technics, said he could have a feasibility plan drafted in about three weeks.
Meanwhile, the DOT is widening Interstate 295 between Exits 3 and 4, a stretch that is eyed for a potential stream-side trail if the Jetport expansion and aviation rules prohibit the first bridge option. That trail, however, may involve adjusting the finished grade.
Mayor Tom Blake, a founder of the Land Trust and former chairman of the WET, said the feasibility study could be one way to coordinate the different projects.
“We unfortunately are in a very precarious situation; we have a regional area that’s in chaos,” Blake said. “We have all of these projects happening simultaneously and one of the problems with government is getting different arms to talk to each another.”
More than three dozen people attended Monday night’s workshop and those who spoke supported the project. Supporters cited benefits from increased wellness to economic development.
Janet Robinson, a Scarborough resident who commutes by bike to Portland, said better biking infrastructure would encourage more people to get out of their cars.
“This is an investment in our future,” Robinson said. “People are interested in cycling and the reason they’re not doing it is because they don’t feel comfortable on the roads.”
Tim Lambert, a Biddeford resident who commutes by bike to National Semiconductor in South Portland, said the bridge connection would not only connect the east and west ends of the city, but essentially Saco to Cape Elizabeth.
“Just don’t think of this as one small piece of South Portland,” said Lambert, a member of the Eastern Trail Alliance. “Look at this as one piece of South Portland that’s benefiting the whole region and any money you put into it will come back to the region 10 times over.”
Councilor Jim Soule pressed the council to hold a public hearing before directing the city manager to spend $12,000 on the study, but Councilor Linda Boudreau said that expenditures of less than $20,000 to do not have to be approved in a public meeting.
City Manager Jim Gailey said he would explore the possibility of using Tax Increment Financing funds for the study.