Portland has a reputation as a city that’s friendly to pedestrians and cyclists, and anyone who’s ever been on Back Cove Trail, wandered the Old Port or traversed the Arts District on First Friday would agree.
But elsewhere in the city, it’s a lot harder to get around if you’re not in a car. One of the most notable examples is Libbytown, a neighborhood that was cut off from the rest of Portland more than 40 years ago by the construction of Interstate 295.
Libbytown today is unwelcoming to people traveling by foot or on two wheels. Traffic there is high-speed and high-volume; the sidewalks are narrow, and the crossings are few.
The city has recognized that walkers and bikers need a safer Libbytown. City staff and consultants have developed a revitalization proposal that calls for adding bike lanes, converting parts of Congress Street and Park Avenue into two-way streets and instituting traffic-calming measures. A community advisory board has offered its input, and the proposal has been presented to a City Council committee.
But the plan will come no closer to fruition unless the state indicates it’s willing to consider a provision at the heart of the project: eliminating four of the five ramps connecting Congress Street to Interstate 295. A Maine Department of Transportation official has indicated it’s unlikely that the agency would approve such a proposal.
We hope the state takes a closer look. The interstate first destroyed Libbytown’s cohesion, then funneled high-speed traffic onto its streets and fed the perception of the area as a place to be driven through, not a place of its own. Now it’s time for the state to make a policy decision that will help revitalize and reconnect a fragmented neighborhood.
The state knows that Libbytown is unsafe. Cars traveling to or from I-295 move quickly there, making it difficult for a cyclist or pedestrian to navigate. MDOT figures define Congress Street and Park Avenue, the neighborhood’s two major travel corridors, as high-crash sites (areas with at least eight accidents in a three-year period).
The access ramps at the center of the crash activity aren’t even needed. New ramps linking I-295 to the Fore River Parkway could better accommodate most interstate traffic. And under the current proposal, one of the five Libbytown ramps would stay open, to keep traffic away from the already heavily used Forest Avenue interchange.
With most of the ramps gone, their footprint could be put to better use, benefiting both the state and city governments and city residents as well. The state would save money previously used to maintain and patrol the highway access ramps. The city would gain land to be used for development — putting the parcel back on the tax rolls — or for open space. And locals would be able to enjoy a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly space that allows for neighborly interaction.
The interstate has transformed Libbytown, and not for the better. The sooner the access ramps are removed, however, the sooner state officials, city officials and local residents can begin to put the neighborhood back together again. The state should take the opportunity now before it to make this a reality.