Yarmouth seeks green light for proposed Route 1 traffic fix

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YARMOUTH — When the state Department of Transportation installed a temporary traffic light on U.S. Route 1 earlier this year, it vindicated a long-held belief by town planners that a signal could reduce crashes at the intersection of U.S. Route 1 and Route 88.

As a result, the Town Council took steps Tuesday night to pursue a permanent traffic light.

There’s a catch, however: The DOT and a local planning agency might not allow it.

In 2001, a town committee began looking at ways to improve Route 1, including ways to reduce accidents at the intersection with Route 88. Their first idea was somewhat counter-intuitive: Rather than address the intersection itself, the plan was to install a traffic signal farther north, at the intersection with Interstate 295 Exit 17.

A light at that location would disrupt the flow of southbound traffic and allow more room for cars to maneuver, particularly motorists exiting southbound I-295, who – in a very short stretch of roadway – have to cross two lanes of Route 1 to make the left turn onto Route 88. That results in many minor crashes, Town Manager Nat Tupper said.

DOT, however, rejected the original plan, saying traffic on Route 1 was too light to meet state standards for a traffic signal.

The committee turned to Plan B, a proposed roundabout at the intersection of Route 1 and Route 88. The project is estimated at $2.5 million, and was endorsed by the Town Council several years ago.

The roundabout plan would work quite well, Tupper said, but it’s more costly and would take longer to implement due to major construction. A traffic signal, on the other hand, would be quick and relatively cheap.

And now, they’ve found, it’s apparently effective, too.

When a construction project recently closed I-295 Exit 15 for three months during spring and early summer, DOT installed a temporary traffic light at Exit 17 to compensate for added traffic.

The results were immediate and popular, Tupper said.

“Our accident counts were significantly lower while there was a traffic light,” he said.

When Exit 15 was reopened in early July, however, DOT removed the light and the crashes returned, Tupper said. The town now hopes the popularity of the temporary light, combined with crash data, might persuade the state to soften its long-held position.

In the meantime, the roundabout proposal is on the verge of receiving funds.

Earlier this year, the town received a funding commitment of $210,000 from Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System to design the roundabout at the intersection of Route 1 and Route 88. The commitment implies that PACTS, a regional planning group, will also help fund construction.

If the roundabout project is ultimately approved, the town would be responsible for about $400,000 of the project’s total cost. If the town balks, it would have to reimburse PACTS the $210,000 for the design.

Several councilors said the roundabout project has become too costly, considering the declining value of Wyman Station and a difficult revenue picture for the next fiscal year. The town has until next month to decide whether to accept the money, Tupper said.

As an alternative, the Town Council voted unanimously Tuesday to authorize Tupper to negotiate with PACTS and DOT to see if those funds could be used to study and design a solution at Exit 17.

“We’d like to see if we can alter the scope of services to look at the traffic light instead of a roundabout,” he said.

There is no guarantee the agencies will approve the request, but DOT has expressed a willingness to reconsider it, Tupper said.

Councilor James MacLeod said the temporary traffic light at Exit 17 was a success.

“It worked, and the overwhelming part of the community recognized it, endorsed it, liked it and there was a realization that, ‘Hey, there might be a more cost effective approach to some of the things we were trying to tackle with the roundabout,'” MacLeod said.

Resident Dan Ostrye said during a public comment period that he didn’t feel the temporary traffic light had a profound effect on the traffic woes, but he voiced support for it anyway.

“I think we know that signals help,” he said. “I think it’s appropriate given our fiscal constraints.”

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.

Sewer fees back on the table in Yarmouth

YARMOUTH — The Town Council voted unanimously to consider developing a sewer fee for town residents and businesses.

The resolution calls for the town manager and town engineer to develop a list of options for the council to consider.

Town Manager Nat Tupper said the move to “investigate and consider” sewer fees was motivated by declining revenue in the town and a desire to relieve some of the property tax burden by shifting some or all of the costs of the sewer system to users.

Councilor Leslie Hyde expressed solid support for investigating the possibility of fees, saying the sewer system is “chronically underfunded in this town to the tune of $280,000 every year.”

Previous proposals of sewer fees have been met with staunch opposition from residents, but Chairman Steve Woods said it’s fiscally prudent to revisit and explore the possibility.

—Ben McCanna