PORTLAND — Congress Street may soon become easier to navigate for buses, pedestrians and bicyclists.

But motorists may find it less friendly.

The proposed changes recognize that Congress Street from High Street to Franklin Arterial is used by more buses than any other stretch of road in the state, with Metro, South Portland’s City Bus, the ShuttleBus and Zoom Express all having routes that cover at least part of the 10-block stretch.

But the route can be tough for buses that must battle congestion while pulling in and out the line of traffic to pick up and discharge passengers.

City planners are looking at significant changes to the stretch – including reversing the flow of some one-way streets, removing stop lights and eliminating almost all left-hand turns onto the downtown’s main drag.

The City Council’s Transportation Committee took a first look at the proposal Tuesday and may consider asking for a more detailed design after its next meeting in July. That process is expected to be completed by early fall, after which the committee will consider whether to pass the proposal on to the full council for a final decision.

The recommendations also include major changes for Federal Street, which runs parallel to Congress Street past state and federal court buildings. The proposal calls for connecting the street to the Franklin Street arterial and reversing its two one-way sections.

The changes would make Federal Street one-way from Temple Street to its intersection with Congress at Monument Square. The stretch between Franklin and Pearl streets also would be reversed to accommodate traffic turning onto Federal from the Franklin arterial. The part between Pearl and Temple would remain two-way.

Other one-way streets where the direction would be reversed are Oak, Brown and Center streets. Traffic signals would be taken down where Congress Street intersects with Casco, Brown and Temple streets. Left turns would be forbidden, except for buses turning onto Congress from Forest Avenue and Center Street and for eastbound buses turning off Congress onto Elm Street.

Planners also plan to eliminate or consolidate some bus stops, although a final determination on which stops would be affected has not been made.

If no changes are made, congestion and travel times will increase with traffic that is expected to grow about 1 percent a year, city planners said.

Several public hearings on the plan have been held, but so far they’ve attracted little attention. That could change, however, as residents, commuters and business owners begin to look at the magnitude of the changes.

At the committee meeting, Steven P. Kalisz, general manager of MHR Management, said he’s no fan of the plan.

MHR owns two downtown parking garages and has a long-term lease on the city’s garage on Temple Street, next to the Nickelodeon theater. Eliminating left turns from Congress Street onto Temple Street will make it harder for moviegoers and others to get to the garage, he said, as will the new one-way direction of Federal Street between Temple and Congress streets.

Harold Pachios, a prominent lawyer, warned that the plan could make downtown more difficult to navigate, making people less likely to come into the city to shop or dine.

Forest Avenue, he said, has always been considered an easy way to get into downtown by many, including drivers coming off I-295. With cars no longer allowed to turn left onto Congress Street from Forest Avenue toward the heart of Congress Street and the Old Port, he said, “it will no longer be a gateway.”

“There could be a lot of unintended consequences,” he said.

But Christian MilNeil said the plan, which calls on bikers to share the road with cars and buses, makes sense. Without all the stop lights and cars turning left, he said, bikers will find it easier to ride through downtown.

“A lot of people are currently worried about change, but the status quo isn’t working,” he said.

Councilor Kevin Donoghue said he wants to get some answers before giving a go-ahead for more detailed design work. For instance, he said, there are some places where drivers wouldn’t be able to make three right turns to get around the now-prohibited left turn.

He also wants to see how bus stops would be consolidated, and get some sense of how the plan would allow buses to make left turns without encouraging drivers in cars behind the buses to do the same.

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]