PORTLAND – Standing in Longfellow Square and watching a wave of cars roll up State Street, Brian Peterson imagines traffic moving in both directions.
The change is one city officials hope to see, but Peterson sees only trouble.
“It’s crazy,” he said of the plan intended to make downtown Portland more pedestrian-friendly. “It will shut the city down. Portland constantly is being voted one of the most walkable cities in America. How walkable does it have to be?”
Peterson, a professional photographer who lives in Westbrook, is waging a one-man battle to keep Portland’s arterials flowing. He said he represents the view of most motorists in Greater Portland.
On the other side of the issue are city officials and neighborhood groups who see the city’s one-way streets as a failed legacy of the auto-centric urban planners of the 1960s and 1970s.
High and State streets were converted to one-way arterials as part of a plan developed by Victor Gruen, a planning consultant the city hired in 1967. Gruen is best known as a pioneer in the design of shopping malls in the United States.
High-speed traffic creates barriers for pedestrians and degrades the quality of life for people who live in the city, said Anne Pringle, president of Friends of Deering Oaks.
“This is our opportunity to take back our city from Victor Gruen,” she said. “We now have a different community value structure.”
The city’s proposal mirrors a national trend. Over the past decade, dozens of cities, including Minneapolis, Oklahoma City and Louisville, Ky., have converted the traffic flow of major one-way streets to two-way in an effort to revitalize downtown neighborhoods and commercial districts.
The thinking about road design has shifted, said John Duncan, director of the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Committee.
Pedestrians, bicyclists and mass transit are now being taken into account, he said, and planners have learned how to move more people without building more roads or adding traffic lanes.
“It’s the road diet principle,” Duncan said. “In other words, we can live with less road capacity for traffic.”
From Peterson’s view, that’s all bad news for drivers. He said city officials are capitulating to the parochial interests of some Portland neighborhoods and aren’t concerned with the regional impact.
He contends that converting High and State streets to two-way would increase traffic congestion and, in turn, air pollution.
Two-way traffic also would lead to more accidents, he said.
His evidence includes a Portland Press Herald article from 1973, in which a state traffic engineer said that converting the streets to one-way streets will relieve “major safety and capacity problems across the Portland peninsula in the north-south direction.”
Peterson, 62, doesn’t drive through the city any more than most people. His obsession with stopping the city’s traffic calming programs began in 1998, when he still lived in Portland and began questioning a city plan to build a series of asphalt berms and speed tables on Stevens Avenue.
He created a website, www.stopchickenlittle.com, to rally motorists against the project. The site is still running and now includes a section on the proposal for High and State streets. He said he devotes 10 to 20 hours a week on research, updating his website and writing letters to state and city officials.
To Peterson, the stakes are high. When combined with projects to narrow Franklin and Spring streets, changing the traffic flow on High and State streets would hurt the city’s commercial viability, he said.
For Franklin Arterial — now renamed Franklin Street — officials hope to reconnect streets that were severed by the construction of the divided four-lane arterial. They also want to squeeze the lanes closer together to open up land for development.
Officials want to take the same approach to undo another Gruen legacy — Spring Street, four lanes of traffic divided by a raised median.
The conversion of High and State streets into one-way couplets in 1973 was part of Gruen’s partially completed plan to create a ring road around the downtown core.
While remaking Franklin and Spring streets would require a lot of expensive infrastructure work, restoring High and State streets to their original configuration would be relatively inexpensive, costing $1 million to $2 million to replace the traffic lights and make other adjustments at the 12 intersections between the Casco Bay Bridge and Interstate 295, said Mike Bobinsky, director of Portland’s Public Services Department.
He said the city’s staff plans to request $150,000 in the fiscal 2013-14 operating budget for a preliminary engineering study.
The City Council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee will discuss the scope of the study Feb. 20.
A preliminary feasibility study in December showed there would be no major problems that would prohibit the conversion of the streets.
This month, the city also plans to submit a formal request to the Maine Department of Transportation to relocate Route 77 from State and High streets to West Commercial Street and the Fore River Parkway.
Since the Fore River Parkway was completed in 2005, connecting Exit 5 of Interstate 295 with West Commercial Street, traffic volumes on High and State streets have declined, with traffic at some intersections dropping as much as 20 percent, said City Councilor David Marshall, who chairs the council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee.
Marshall said the Fore River Parkway is a longer route from the Casco Bay Bridge to I-295 but has far fewer traffic lights. Designating it as Route 77 would encourage drivers to break their old habit of using High and State streets to get across the city.
“By moving traffic to the Fore River Parkway, motorists no longer have to drive though the two densest urban neighborhoods in the state,” Marshall said.
Bobinsky said traffic studies indicate that most of the drivers who use High and State streets are traveling to local destinations, and that the couplet is not the “big regional-type roadway” that Peterson describes.
In 2011, a count of vehicles entering or exiting the Casco Bay Bridge showed that fewer than 30 percent were passing through Portland’s peninsula.
The greatest average traffic volume — 13,650 vehicles a day — was recorded at the intersection of High and Spring streets.
The city’s Parkside and West End neighborhood associations support the initiative.
Nobody wants a high-speed arterial running through their neighborhood, and city officials are right to put the interests of neighborhoods ahead of motorists who want to drive through the city as quickly as possible, said Emma Holder, president of the Parkside Neighborhood Association.
Bobinsky said Peterson raises valid questions that must be answered before the project can move forward. That’s why more traffic and engineering studies are needed and the findings must be distributed to the traveling public.
“I understand where Brian is coming from,” Bobinsky said. “Where I do agree with Brian is that we have to have the facts to make a decision.”
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: