Updated at 10:01 a.m. on Wednesday, August 3, 2011 to correct the residence of one of the members of the Route One Alternative Decision group quoted in the article.

WISCASSET — The Maine Department of Transportation’s decision to call off plans for a bypass around Wiscasset has revealed mixed feelings about the project that depend largely on geography.

Many merchants in Wiscasset’s historic village, as well as residents in neighboring Edgecomb, welcomed Monday’s announcement because they have always viewed the bypass as threat – to the environment, their neighborhoods or the viability of the local tourism trade.

But a few miles north or south on Route 1, the attitude is different. The traffic bottleneck in Wiscasset – which occurs every summer weekend and on many other days – is seen as an obstacle to the region’s economic growth, discouraging tourists from venturing to the Boothbay peninsula and making truck deliveries slower and more expensive.

Then there are people like Marie Walsh, who on Tuesday was working at the front desk of her family’s business, the Seagate Motel in Boothbay Harbor. She sees both sides of the issue.

She said tourists who arrive at the Seagate Motel on weekends often complain about sitting in traffic in Wiscasset for more than an hour. At the time same, she said, she has learned to adjust. She knows the back roads that can lead her around the traffic, and she tells her guests about the best time of day to get through Wiscasset and avoid the traffic.

She said many people would do better if they simply accepted the way things are. “It’s just a fact of life,” she said. “And it’s only two months out of the year.”

State and local officials have studied potential solutions for Wiscasset’s traffic congestion for more than 50 years. Last year, state transportation officials settled on the most specific plan yet for a corridor around the village.

But on Monday, Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said he had decided to kill the estimated $100 million project because of its price and the limited benefit it would provide.

Doing nothing comes with a cost, said David Ross Bertran, a Westport Island resident who served for 11 years on the Midcoast Bypass Task Force, which worked with state officials to find a way to ease the traffic problem.

He said the Wiscasset bottleneck – which he calls the “Wiscasett strangler” – is a real obstacle to the region’s economic development.

He said the traffic jams, which by his measure can last from 15 minutes to an hour and a half, reduce productivity and hamper the growth of tourism and other industries.

“The victim isn’t Wiscasset,” he said of state’s decision to halt the project. “The victim is everybody else up and down the coast.”

Indeed, it was difficult Tuesday to find business owners or residents in Wiscasset who saw themselves as victims. Many welcomed the news that the bypass was going nowhere.

Steve Zuppa, a volunteer at the new Wiscasset Chamber of Commerce booth on Route 1, said he couldn’t think of anyone in town who was in favor of the bypass.

Morrison Bonpasse, a Newcastle resident who helped form Route One Alternative Decision, a citizens group that opposed the project, said the bypass would have destroyed 35 homes and cut an “ugly swath through a beautiful historic town and countryside.”

Many of the businesses in the village opposed the project because they feared that a new road would encourage tourists to avoid the town altogether.

Bruce Marcus, co-owner of Water Street Antiques, said retailers in the village depend on the drop-in customers who notice their shops while driving along Route 1.

“They are not going to stop if they go around us,” he said.

A few miles away in Boothbay Harbor, it’s easier to find business owners who are upset about state’s decision to drop the bypass.

Ken Brown, owner of Brown’s Wharf Inn and Marina, said the traffic jams in Wiscasset discourage tourists from taking day trips to Boothbay Harbor. He said local restaurants would have a brisker lunchtime business if the Wiscasset bottleneck didn’t serve as a sort of dam for potential customers from the south.

Given the time, effort and hundreds of thousands of dollars that have gone into planning for the bypass, it’s discouraging that the project is being halted, said Catherine Wygant, executive director of the Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce.

She noted that the Route 1 bypass around nearby Damariscotta – which was opposed by some merchants in that town – proved to be successful for the town and the region.

Jarryl Larson of Edgecomb, who served on Midcoast Bypass Task Force, said future development along the highway will create more traffic pressure and increase the potential for accidents.

She said the state should consider a less ambitious and less expensive option: building smaller connector roads that would knit together existing roads and create an alternative route around Wiscasset.

“The studies show that in 20 to 25 years we will have a disaster if we don’t do something,” she said.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]