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It's Not Just This Weekend — Summer Traffic on Maine Highways is Getting Worse

Maine Department of Transportation

PORTLAND, Maine — Congestion on Maine's most heavily traveled highways has been in remission for most of the last decade. Blame the biggest declines in driving on the Great Recession. But now, it is beginning to make a comeback on Maine highways. And the ways officials are planning to deal with it are different than in the past.

As the economy has started to bounce back, so have more cars and trucks on the southern end of the Maine Turnpike, on Interstate 95 through Bangor and, perhaps most significantly, on Interstate 295 in Portland. That's where traffic planner Paul Niehoff has seen it.

"Well, I've noticed a lot more traffic on 295 and it's certainly noticeable when there've been crashes on 295, like a couple of weeks ago," he says.

Niehoff works for the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, or PACTS, as its known. Another planner with PACTS, Carl Eppich, says another factor is also at work.

"I think there's just been a degradation, or maybe an additional comfort level with driving without necessarily paying attention to the road," he says. "I don't know why that is, but I know that devices have a big part of it."

But underlying those problems is the simple rebound in traffic volume. You can see it in year-to-year figures the state transportation department has gathered along I-295 and I-95.

On I-295 in Freeport, traffic was up 4 percent in June and 2 percent in July over the same months the year before. In Sidney, north of Augusta, June was up 5 percent, July, 2 percent over the year before. In Medway, June traffic rose 3 percent over the year before. And the trends are similar for the Turnpike, where traffic counts are also up slightly.

And the figures show local use of the turnpike is also on the rise. Some of the biggest increases are in Greater Portland. That bolsters Turnpike Executive Director Peter Mills' belief that increasing traffic on I-295 is pushing more drivers to use the toll road.

"People have discovered that it's by far, in some cases, the most convenient way to get to the airport or to avoid traffic on Maine Mall Road, or Congress Street," he says.

But the turnpike, for now, can handle that traffic. What continues to be slow is a summer weekend trip to Maine and, especially, the return trip.

"Where people need to get home to Massachusetts on a Sunday afternoon, on a beautiful weekend, that's where we see tremendous congestion," Mills says. "And it's not caused by the Turnpike. It's caused by the fact that the bridge going over the river to New Hampshire is constraining and so is the New Hampshire highway system."

The traditional answer to congested highways is a widened highway. But widening highways is expensive and, right now, there are no plans for the kind of project last undertaken by the Turnpike Authority on the section south of Scarborough. Instead, highway planners such as Eppich are studying what in a highway's design either contributes to crashes, creates traffic jams, or forces drivers to slow down.

"I-295 through the city doesn't need to be widened, I don't think, for capacity issues, you know, ambient, every day," Eppich says. "It's more of — something needs to be done to address the conflicts and the weaving points, and there are so many, and if people are going too fast."

One such project will be done next summer, when the Forest Avenue interchange in Portland is rebuilt. One goal is to end the confusing and dangerous conflict between drivers trying to exit and enter the highway in a space of barely 500 feet. In Bangor work is underway to un-knot the crossing exit and entrance ramps to I-95 between Union and Ohio streets. In Falmouth and Yarmouth, new, longer acceleration lanes are meant to smooth out the merging of traffic, a way to lessen crashes, as well as congestion.

"We hope to do some more of those types of projects where you're extending acceleration and deceleration lanes, especially at some of the busiest ramps," Ed Hanscom of the State Department of Transportation says.

As for the turnpike, Mills says one project that has been talked about is taking the existing Piscataqua River Bridge and reconfiguring it to either carry four, narrower lanes in each direction, or create a reversible middle lane that could be adjusted to carry an extra lane of northbound traffic on summer Fridays and an extra lane southbound on summer Sundays.

Oh, and Mills says Miles the Moose will be back out at the York tolls this weekend, handing out something to drivers, in part, Mills says, to thank them for putting up with the slow ride home.