The Universal Notebook: High and State, it's a 2-way street

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Portland city officials are considering whether to return High Street and State Street, the one-way, up-and-over avenues across the downtown peninsula, to two-way traffic.

I remember when they were designated one-way back in 1972. I was just out of college, just married, just started a new job, so I had no time to think about transportation policy. My initial thoughts today are to just leave well enough alone, but I could go either way.

The reassignment of High and State was part and parcel of the Maine Way Project mania of the 1960s and 1970s. Greater Portland Landmarks was established in 1964 in response to the demolition of Union Station, a grand old landmark replaced by a shopping center, but even the raising of historic preservation consciousness could not stop the heavy hand of urban renewal.

In 1968, the Franklin Street Arterial tore through Bayside and pretty much wiped out what was left of Little Italy on its way from Back Cove to Portland Harbor (Little Italy having previously been the victim of “slum clearance” in 1958).

In 1971, the Spring Street Arterial destroyed an entire downtown neighborhood in order to create a 1.2-mile four-lane divided highway in the heart of downtown Portland. Lovely old Frye Hall, where my Nana Gibson, who lived on High Street, took me to lectures at the Women’s Literary Union, was replaced by the Holiday Inn.

In 1972, the Golden Triangle, several blocks of the 19th century brick mercantile buildings we now find so charming, were razed to be replaced a decade later by the bulk of One City Center. In the meantime, the most valuable real estate in Portland served as a parking lot.

In 1976, Portland actually won an award from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the Spring Street development as an “Outstanding Example of Highway-Oriented Public or Private Enterprise Which Preserves the Environment.”

As much as I rue the day Portland went on its urban renewal rampage, I have to admit it worked. Franklin, Spring, and the designation of High and State as one-way crosstown arteries does keep traffic flowing and lets you get around the city much faster and easier – in an automobile.

And that’s the problem.

High and State have been one-way streets for 40 years. Returning them to two-way traffic is a two-way street that pits the interests of downtown Portland residents against those of suburban commuters, pedestrians against motorists.

Folks who live in downtown Portland, in Parkside and the West End, see the restoration of two-way traffic as a way of slowing down the lines of cars that charge two abreast uphill to Congress Street and careen down the other side. The idea is to make Portland a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly city. The reasoning seems to be that it will be safer for pedestrians to cross High and State, even if they will have to look both ways.

Traffic consultants are busy predicting traffic counts and seem to believe that going both ways won’t create any worse traffic delays than already exist. Traffic counts have been declining since 2000 anyway, a result I’m sure of economic recession, gas price inflation, telecommuting and ring road improvements such as the new Fore River Parkway.

Not only is Portland rethinking High and State, there are also plans afoot to redesign Franklin and Spring in hopes of correcting some of the more auto-centric affronts of urban renewal.

I’ve been around long enough now to know two things: whatever Portland decides will probably look like a mistake in 50 years, and no matter how bad it is at first we’ll quickly get used to it.

Personally, I kind of like things the way they are, but then I don’t have to walk very far in Portland.

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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.