WESTBROOK — Afternoon commuters lined up down Warren Avenue in Westbrook have to merge into nonstop traffic coming down Cumberland Street and immediately cross lanes to head west toward downtown.
With the third-highest crash rate in the state, it’s Cumberland County’s ground zero for fender-benders.
Adding a light at that intersection and at three others within the Cumberland Mills traffic triangle has become the top priority of the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, nearly 10 years after a group of city and state officials came up with the proposal.
The Westbrook City Council will vote Monday on whether to endorse the project, a step required by PACTS before it can move forward.
The $1.8 million project would mostly be funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, with contributions from the state and city, said City Engineer Eric Dudley. The preliminary time frame calls for designing the project next year and doing construction in 2016, he said.
In the conceptual plan, traffic lights would be installed at every intersection within the triangle – at Cumberland and Main streets, Cumberland Street and Warren Avenue, Cumberland Street and Harnois Avenue, and Harnois Avenue and Main Street. They would be coordinated with one another and with a nearby traffic signal, which would be upgraded, at Forest and Main streets.
City Administrator Jerre Bryant said the biggest problems within the triangle are for drivers entering from Cumberland Street, where traffic backs up in the morning as commuters from the west wait to slip into constant oncoming cars, and from Warren Avenue, which backs up in the afternoon rush.
Nathan Wrigley said he leaves work late to avoid the delay, which can turn a 15-minute commute to his home in Gorham into nearly an hour – depending on how many cars in the line hesitate to take advantage of the short breaks in traffic.
As for the plan to add traffic lights, he said, “I think it’s a great idea.”
Paul Rowland, however, doesn’t see the need for something that drastic.
The owner of Paul’s Shoe Repair – in the island of businesses that the triangle surrounds – thinks traffic flows relatively well there and could be improved by minor fixes, like wider islands and more defined curbs “to slow the flow down,” he said.
Rowland, whose business has been across from the intersection of Warren Avenue and Cumberland Street for 27 years, said he’s never seen a major accident.
“I’ve seen people come up the wrong way. I’ve seen people driving like maniacs,” he said. But the only crashes he’s witnessed have been when drivers move up in the line of cars on Warren Avenue, are looking up Cumberland Street at the traffic coming down and bump the car in front of them.
There were 79 crashes from 2011 to 2013 at the intersection of Warren Avenue and Cumberland Street, giving it the highest crash rate in Cumberland County and the third-highest in the state, said Maine Department of Transportation spokesman Ted Talbot. He said 96 percent of the accidents from 2011 to 2013 were rear-end crashes, and only 11 of the 79 had “possible injuries.”
Still, Virgina Ayers often feels like she’s taking her life in her hands when she leaves work in the afternoon.
Ayers, who owns Top Cuts, a barbershop in the island, said she parks on the Cumberland Street side of the triangle to leave the better spots on the Main Street side open for her customers.
When she merges into traffic coming down Cumberland Street, she doesn’t know what those cars are planning on doing.
“I just pull out and pray they’re not coming over to my lane,” she said.