Road expansion alone won’t save Portland’s southern and western suburbs from heavy traffic congestion 25 years from now, a yearlong study is concluding. To avoid gridlock and preserve rural character, communities in Maine’s fastest-growing residential region also must beef up land use planning to encourage people to live closer to jobs, businesses and public transportation.

These are among the key findings of the Gorham East-West Corridor Feasibility Study, which looked at expected growth trends through 2035 in Gorham, Westbrook, Scarborough, South Portland and surrounding suburbs.

Officials will discuss the findings and recommendations Tuesday, at the Wyndam Hotel in South Portland, and Nov. 3, at the Gorham Municipal Center. Both meetings are from 6 to 8 p.m.

These meetings will preview a written draft report due in January, which will be followed by more public sessions.

The study was conducted with $1 million from the Maine Turnpike Authority and the Maine Department of Transportation.

The study was based on projections that 70 percent of all new homes and jobs in the state over the next quarter-century will be in the region.

That would add an estimated 35,000 homes and 25,000 jobs to an area where roads already are heavily traveled.

Some participants began the study with the idea that suburban congestion could be solved primarily through construction, perhaps with a turnpike spur or by expanding existing roadways, such as routes 22 and 114.

“But to make any road improvements last longer, we’re going to have to ask communities to change how they develop,” said Carol Morris, a spokeswoman for the task force.

Land use planning has a mixed history in Maine, where many people prefer to live on large lots in the countryside. A strong growth management law aimed at fighting sprawl was enacted in the late 1980s but later was diluted.

Since then, though, amendments to Maine’s Sensible Transportation Policy Act require that land use and transit alternatives be considered before road construction. The amendments also allow the MDOT to set road-building priorities based on whether communities live up to these requirements, Morris said.

Meeting the standards in Greater Portland won’t be that much of a stretch, according to one town official, because many communities already are steering growth to areas closer to public services.

“This is not a revolutionary situation,” said Burleigh Loveitt, a veteran town councilor in Gorham who has been working with the task force.

Gorham has a density bonus ordinance that rewards developers by letting them build more homes closer together. A good example, Loveitt said, is Wagner Farm, a successful 42-lot subdivision served by public sewer, water and natural gas.

“It has met with no community resistance whatsoever,” he said.

Recently, the town contracted with GrowSmart Maine to study land use patterns in South Gorham, where more development is likely.

The main obstacles to creating growth zones, Loveitt said, is for towns to find enough money to expand water and sewer lines, and for residents to clearly understand the benefits of better land use planning.

“I think we all realize we have a major east-west transportation problem,” he said.

The fact that basic growth management rules are already in place may help the process move ahead, according to John Duncan, director of the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Committee.

But public acceptance of wider growth management remains an open question, he said.

Opposition and court challenges in Scarborough five years ago, Duncan recalled, led to a scaled-back version of a large, high-density project known as the Great American Neighborhood.

“Will big developments, or lots of little ones, happen?” he asked, “Or will the public say, ‘That’s too much change?’ “

It will be up to towns to agree on details, Morris said, but the concepts behind what the study is recommending are sound ones. And it may turn out, she said, that the state’s aging population and a possible return of high gasoline prices will lessen resistance to higher-density development, as people seek to drive less and live closer to services.

“This is long-term planning,” she said. “Twenty-five years is a long time, and things are going to change.”

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]