Just what part of “expect delays” is confusing?

Maine Department of Transportation officials said they posted signs warning of delays before a construction project began last weekend on I-295 northbound in Yarmouth. They also put the news out to media outlets earlier in the week.

But even so, they acknowledge, most motorists likely didn’t expect hour-long delays and backups of up to six miles Saturday and Sunday — a rarity in Maine.

“It’s pretty clear we had a number of people caught in traffic, up to or over an hour,” said Joyce Taylor, director of project development at MDOT. “People have really gotten used to signs that say ‘expect delays,’ then moving through them fairly quickly.”

Taylor said Monday that construction crews will return to the project this weekend, pending good weather. MDOT plans some small changes that may minimize traffic problems, however.

At least some of last weekend’s delays just came from the nature of the project, Taylor said.

Pike Industries and Newman Concrete began work on the three-mile section of highway that includes the bridge over the Royal River at 9 p.m. Friday. Work included removing the old pavement, improving the concrete base and repaving the road, as well as replacing expansion joints in the bridge.

That section of highway was rutted, and was particularly dangerous during rainstorms: “It’s one of the worst spots on the interstate in southern Maine,” Taylor said.

Crews worked around the clock over the weekend, finishing up about 10 a.m. Monday, two hours earlier than anticipated, according to Taylor.

During Saturday and Sunday, traffic backed up for at least six miles between Exits 7 and 16 due to lane closures.

According to MDOT, a variable message sign on the Maine Turnpike south of Exit 44 warned of the project and delays, as did another sign on I-295 just past Exit 7. On Saturday, when traffic officials saw how backed up traffic was, they upgraded the warning to tell motorists to expect “significant” delays, Taylor said.

Taylor said MDOT works on the weekend because fewer travelers are on the road. On weekday afternoons in July, peak traffic hours see 3,300 vehicles on that stretch, she said. comparison, there are 2,300 vehicles on Saturdays in June on that stretch.

And this is the best time to do the work because the temperature remains high enough to pave, even at night, said Rich Crawford, assistant highway program manager. The road surface must be 50 degrees or higher, he said, giving crews a relatively small window of time to get projects done.

Next weekend, work is scheduled to start at 9 p.m. Friday and continue to noon Monday, again. It should prove a different story for motorists, Taylor said.

One of the bottlenecks last weekend was a sizable bump on the bridge, Taylor said. Vehicles — particularly tractor-trailers and vehicles towing something — slowed almost to a stop before going over the bump.

The project will narrow traffic to one lane again this weekend. But, said Taylor, vehicles will be traveling on a newly paved lane, without the big bump — so traffic should flow easier. And as paving work is finished, the crews will attempt to reopen the lanes quicker, allowing traffic to continue in both lanes slightly longer.

MDOT is putting up more variable message signs to alert motorists, she added, and is putting out more information about the project and possible delays on radio stations statewide and in southern Maine, in particular. They are also working on alternate routes to suggest to motorists, such as going via Route 1 if the motorists’ destination is Yarmouth, Falmouth or Freeport, or sticking to the Maine Turnpike if it’s Augusta or beyond.

Maine State Police Trooper Marvin Hinkley said he worked in the area during the day Saturday and Sunday. There were two minor accidents where vehicles were rear-ended, and one more serious rollover in the area.

Hinkley said there were reports of motorists illegally crossing the median, but he didn’t see it personally. The construction company put up more barrels to block that from happening, he said.

Hinkley said motorists next weekend should be aware that traffic might slow to a stop suddenly. It’s a wide area, he said, and traffic does sometimes thin out, allowing motorists to pick up speed before having to stop abruptly.

Vaughn Stinson, executive director of the Maine Tourism Association, said his members were warned of possible delays, but no one understood the extent of the problem.

When he saw traffic backed up Saturday, he called the state’s welcome centers to advise them to suggest motorists stay on the turnpike.

This was a busy weekend for tourism in Maine, he noted. The weekend was “campers’ weekend,” when parents from away traditionally visit their kids at summer camp.

Stinson said he did hear that some visitors were complaining at the welcome centers as they left Maine.

The tourism industry is doing better than last summer, when the rain hurt business, but is still having a tough go, Stinson said. Construction delays don’t help.

“I understand we have to do the roads in good weather it’s tough,” Stinson said.

“It does have an impact on us where the tourists are concerned, there’s no two ways about it. We’re doing OK, but with a lot of our folks, every minute, every day in that window between June and October really counts.”

Myra Hopkins, executive director of the Freeport Merchants Association, said she didn’t hear of any complaints from town shop owners.

Business was strong in Freeport over the weekend, she said, adding that delays may have prompted motorists to go off the highway and through Freeport’s Main Street, possibly helping business.

 

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: [email protected].