Speed limit reduction not imminent on Highland Avenue 'racetrack' in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — A written request to reduce the speed limit on a portion of Highland Avenue will arrive in Augusta far more quickly than Maine Department of Transportation officials will act on it.

City Manager James Gailey said the request for a speed limit of 35 mph was mailed this week.

DOT spokesman Ted Talbot said any decision is months away and will require extensive study.

The section of Highland Avenue in question extends from the Highland Memorial Gardens, where the speed limit now increases from 30 mph to 40 mph, and the Scarborough town line, where it increases to 45 mph.

Councilor Maxine Beecher, who supports reducing the speed limit, said this portion of Highland Avenue has long had a reputation for lead-footed drivers.

“My husband always called it ‘the quarter-mile racetrack,'” Beecher said. “The truth is, it has been a problem on and off for nine years since I have been on the council, but police usually increase visibility and things settle down.”

She said the speeding problem appears to have worsened over the last year, and she and city officials were approached by Old Farm Road resident Kristy Feldhousen-Giles about doing something to slow traffic.

“Kristy was more than ready to step up, that was a key piece for me,” Beecher said.

A June 13 memo to Gailey from City Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said a three-day survey of traffic passing the intersection of Highland Avenue and Old Farm Road showed almost 10 percent of northbound traffic and seven percent of southbound traffic exceeded 55 mph.

On June 18, councilors approved the order authorizing Gailey to ask the state to reduce the speed limit. While Highland Avenue is maintained by the city, speed limits are governed by the DOT, Talbot said.

Talbot said the department will get to the request in turn and then study population density, traffic flow, vehicle counts, incident and accident data, and try to assess conditions in various seasons before reaching a decision. Commercial activity and school zones along a road are also considered in the studies.

Talbot said municipalities can opt to set speed limits, but only if they are willing to accept responsibility for all roads, as opposed to selected streets.

A critical factor in any decision will be the average speed of 85 percent of vehicles monitored in a study. If it develops that 85 percent of vehicles exceed a posted speed limit, Talbot said department officials would delve deeper into accident statistics.

The three-day study cited in Haeuser’s June 13 memo established an 85 percentile rate of 48 mph in both directions at the intersection of Highland Avenue and Old Farm Road.

If 85 percent of the vehicles post an average speed near the posted limit, the request for a reduction could be denied, Talbot said. In rare instances, speed limits have been increased.

One increase occurred in South Portland about three years ago, Haeuser noted, when speeds on Broadway west of Cash Corner (at the intersection with Main Street) were increased.

Beecher and Feldhousen-Giles sited the use of Wainwright Recreational Athletic Complex as a key reason to reduce speeds on Highland Avenue. The complex hosts youth leagues and has increased the child pedestrian traffic on the road, they said.

There are also five school bus stops along the stretch, and Beecher noted the crosswalk near the Wainwright complex technically violates state law because of the posted speed limit.

“The crosswalk is illegal, but it is better to deal with wrath of state,” she said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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.