Only one day after saying the project would be completed as planned, city officials said Thursday that they want to reduce the size of a sidewalk extension under construction at the intersection of Spring and High streets after residents complained that it has made the road unsafe and difficult to navigate.
A group of West End residents had launched a petition campaign to push the city to undo the extension. City officials Tuesday said they would finish the project as originally designed and make changes later if it continued to cause problems for drivers.
City Manager Jon Jennings said Wednesday afternoon that the city had asked the Maine Department of Transportation, which has oversight over the project, whether the extension could be shortened to create more room for vehicles and cyclists.
“‘I felt like it was something we should fix immediately,” Jennings said. “My goal is to have this done before the snow flies.”
The curb extension, or bump-out, is one way the city is trying to make its roads safe and navigable for all modes of transportation. The City Council adopted a so-called Complete Streets policy two years ago, part of which seeks to slow down traffic by narrowing driving lanes and designating more of the road for cyclists and pedestrians.
The Spring Street project is one of the first – and perhaps highest profile – changes since the policy was adopted.
A short stretch of Spring Street directly in front of the Little Tap House pub is being narrowed to allow for on-street parking west of High Street. Construction is still underway, with large orange barrels blocking the dirt area, encased with granite curbing, where the sidewalk extension is located at the crosswalk.
A petition against the changes describes the “extremely problematic” extension as “a road hazard which threatens our safety daily.” Just this week, one driver heading westbound on Spring Street was observed driving right over the granite curbing and onto the sidewalk extension, where pedestrians stand while waiting to cross the road. Another vehicle headed east on Spring Street idled in the wrong lane while waiting to turn left onto High Street. Jennings said the city wants to add a left-turn-only lane for eastbound traffic on Spring Street.
The original project was estimated to cost $600,000. Officials could not immediately estimate how much it would cost to fix the curb.
‘EVERYONE I TALKED TO … IS UP IN ARMS’
One area resident, author Alice Arlen, said she thought about 50 signatures had been collected. She delivered her petition with about a dozen signatures directly to the home of another West End resident, Mayor-elect Ethan Strimling.
Strimling, who takes office Monday, confirmed Tuesday that he has received the petitions, but wasn’t ready to weigh in on the project. “I have to learn more about the issue,” he said.
Although there is a thin shoulder along Spring Street westbound around the curb extension, Arlen, a cyclist, said the narrower lane is particularly dangerous.
“There’s no place for us to bike, we have to go right out into the middle of traffic,” Arlen said. “Everyone I talked to in the neighborhood is up in arms.”
At-Large City Councilor and West End resident Jon Hinck agreed. “The new Spring Street is a mess. We need to fix (it),” he said.
Planning and Urban Development Director Jeff Levine said Tuesday that construction and temporary road striping should be finished before winter. The Maine Department of Transportation won’t pave the road and add permanent road markings until spring, he said.
The changes are part of the larger $2 million, first phase of the Spring Street redesign that includes removing the center median and making the former divided road a more typical city street. The plans call for making Spring Street narrower at intersections so it is easier for pedestrians to cross.
Levine said the city had to scale back the project after bids came in higher than expected. The city is delaying plans to widen sidewalks, including behind the bump-out on Spring Street. Instead, crews will add some striping and parking spaces, he said.
ELM STREET BUMP-OUT A TROUBLE SPOT
The city is only moving forward with $600,000 in upgrades now, he said, whereas the original two-phase project totaled an estimated $4.5 million, Levine said. Other improvements are contingent on the city budget, he said.
Levine acknowledged that another bump-out on Elm Street has also presented a problem for drivers because it’s difficult to see. However, the city is still considering adding more bump-outs on Forest Avenue, including one near William Street, where a pedestrian in a marked crosswalk was struck by a vehicle in August, and others at Woodfords Corner, Levine said.
“It’s a learning process for us about where they do and don’t work,” Levine said. “We’re trying to be a little more strategic about how we do this going forward.”
The city is also considering making High and State streets – two highly traveled one-way thoroughfares – into narrower, two-way streets. It has also added designated bike lanes on streets throughout the city, and created neighborhood byways, which are a series of measures designed to slow traffic and improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists.
Spring Street resident Rob Fitzgerald had complained about the bump-out before the city decided to try to reduce its size, calling it “confusing” and too narrow.
“The general concern is that if it’s bad now, just wait till it snows,” said Fitzgerald, who owns an advertising agency in New York City. “I understand what they’re trying to do, but I think it’s just an accident waiting to happen.”
Emily Marro, the day manager at the Little Tap House at the corner of Spring and High streets, said customers have been asking about the Spring Street changes.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Marro said. “It’s supposed to be more pedestrian-friendly. But I can just imagine someone plowing into (the sidewalk area), particularly when it’s dark. It just kind of blends in.”