The Universal Notebook: End road work

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Admittedly, my personal experience of road work is limited to the long ago summer I spent patching potholes on the access road to Scarborough Downs, but I did get pretty good at it.

Sweep out hole, shovel in cold patch, tamp down, dust with sand. If you don’t sand the patch, it will stick to the first tire that rolls over it.

I’ve been thinking about road work lately because there seems to be a lot of it going on around here. While I have heard several people lament the loss of trees to the Interstate 295 on-ramp redesign at Exit 15 in Yarmouth, I for one am happy to sacrifice some of Maine’s arboreal excess to traffic safety.

Having lived in Yarmouth and braved that blind merge onto I-295 to get to Portland for 30 years, I can’t understand why there haven’t been more serious accidents there. My only conclusion is that the on-ramp was so poorly designed and dangerous that drivers took extra caution.

The problem with the southbound on-ramp has been that the highway itself crowns in such a way that you can’t tell until cars are on top of you which lane they are in. Then there’s no merging lane. Most drivers have just floored it and hoped that approaching drivers move over. The timid have balked at the last minute, braked, risking a rear-end collision, and ended up crawling down the breakdown lane until they felt they could safely merge, the rumble strip protesting their progress all the way.

The problem with the northbound on-ramp across the way has been that it was a tight, blind circle carved out of solid granite and it shot you out onto the highway without a merge lane. The new northbound ramp is open now and, like the redesign work previously done on the even more perilous Falmouth roll-over on-ramp, it seems to solve the problem. Visibility, geometry and traffic patterns have all been improved.

I hope the southbound on-ramp will be as successful, but the Jersey barriers recently installed along the construction area have temporarily made the merger challenge even worse. Now you not only can’t tell which lane a car is in, you sometimes can’t see the cars coming at all.

Of course, the highway system around Yarmouth has perplexed me forever. I lived in town 10 years, for example, before I realized that the dump was west of the highway. I guess the fact that I used to drive under Route 1 and then back over it should have alerted me to that fact, but something about the way I-295 slices through town is very disorienting.

Speaking of which, the new southbound traffic pattern on Route 1 is going to take some getting used to. Not sure you can effectively reduce two lanes of traffic to one with white paint, but that seems to be what the DOT has in mind.

I’m afraid I’ve been grumbling about traffic and road construction all summer. Not only did I keep forgetting until it was too late that Exit 15 was closed, forcing me miles out of my way on my way home, but the fact that Baxter Boulevard in Portland is closed for a year makes me have to recalculate my route anytime I go anywhere off the peninsula in Portland.

“Let’s see, should I go up Washington Avenue, and over Ocean Avenue or can I … .?”

Sometimes you do have to wonder about transportation planners and highway designers. Who was the fiend who came up with the hairpin lanes and slalom markers at the I-295 entrance at Westbrook Street and Broadway in South Portland? Please tell me I am not the only driver who ever had to drive all the way back into Portland because he got in the wrong lane trying to get to Pape Subaru.

All in all, however, I’d have to say, when it comes to road work, we have it pretty good in Maine, compared to some other states. Last month I spent 45 minutes crawling along I-84 in Connecticut, bumper-to-bumper, 5 mph as far as the eye could see. Major accident? Highway paving? Nope.

When I got to the bottleneck, I realized that thousands of motorists were being inconvenienced by a couple of clowns in a dump truck patching potholes. And to make matters worse, they weren’t even sanding them.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.