Traffic on Interstate 295, as seen Thursday evening looking southbound from the Bucknam Road overpass in Falmouth, increased by 12 percent from 2009 to 2015, and is expected to rise even more this year. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Traffic on Interstate 295, as seen Thursday evening looking southbound from the Bucknam Road overpass in Falmouth, increased by 12 percent from 2009 to 2015, and is expected to rise even more this year. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Average daily traffic volumes on Interstate 295 increased by 12 percent from 2009 to 2015 and are projected to rise again this year, the Maine Department of Transportation said Thursday.

Congestion on the busy highway has increased to the point that it is affecting how Maine State Police respond to collisions and enforce traffic laws there.

“During those rush hour times it’s nearly impossible to safely do enforcement work” said Lt. Walter F. Grzyb of Troop B in Gray, which is responsible for policing I-295. “By having a car pulled over on the side of the road, you’re actually creating more of a hazard than you’re fixing.”

Grzyb said his troopers try to increase their presence on I-295 during high-traffic periods to create a visual deterrent to would-be lawbreakers, taking enforcement action only when necessary. Much of their time during rush hour, he said, is spent responding to crashes.

“Even though there are more cars on the road, they’re still going fast. They’re driving closer and closer together and there’s no room for error,” Grzyb said.

The speed limit on much of the highway was increased from 65 mph to 70 mph in 2014.

Joyce Taylor, chief engineer for the Department of Transportation, said she asked state traffic engineers to start diving into traffic data following a rash of crashes after Columbus Day, when most of Maine’s tourist traffic has subsided.

“In this particular case, the data has led to more questions that we have and more research we need to do, but it certainly does show that the number of crashes have gone up,” Taylor said. “I think there’s a whole combination of things going on, but I think the volume is really pressing capacity at times, in particular at the commute times.”

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COMING CLOSER TO CAPACITY

Taylor said the data show that there are more cars on the road for longer stretches of time, expanding the window in each day when the number of cars on I-295 comes close to hitting the highway’s capacity.

Longer high-volume times have meant more crashes spread throughout the day. On I-295 southbound between Portland and Brunswick from 2003 to 2005, the transportation department saw crashes peak between 8 a.m. and noon and then again for two hours in the evening. From 2014 to 2016, by contrast, the department recorded consistently high crash levels over 12 hours of the day.

Northbound crash numbers also increased from 2014 to 2016, although they occurred during a shorter time frame than in 2003 to 2005. Overall, the number of crashes has increased over time, jumping nearly 32 percent between 2013 and 2015.

Taylor said she did not yet know if increasing the speed limit in 2014 had contributed to the rise in crashes. “I think nothing’s coincidental,” she said of the many variables that cause crashes.

Steady traffic and a long camera exposure create light trails Thursday on I-295 in Falmouth. Crashes on the road jumped 32 percent from 2013 to 2015, and the Maine Department of Transportation is studying the many variables that lead to crashes, including speed, volume and distracted driving. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Steady traffic and a long camera exposure create light trails Thursday on I-295 in Falmouth. Crashes on the road jumped 32 percent from 2013 to 2015, and the Maine Department of Transportation is studying the many factors that lead to crashes, including speed, volume and distracted driving. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The Department of Transportation already had planned a long-term study of I-295, examining a wide array of variables from traffic volumes and speeds to distracted driving, tailgating and collision hot spots.

Taylor and state traffic engineer Stephen Landry said they are discussing a variety of options to help make I-295 safer and more reliable in the interim. The department already has shifted most road work to nights so it doesn’t need to close down lanes during commute times, and Taylor credited recently installed cable guard rails with preventing cars from careening into oncoming traffic during crashes.

“That is a good news story,” Taylor said. “We really believe those things are saving lives.”

Landry said the agency is looking into additional signage to communicate with drivers about upcoming road and traffic conditions so motorists can decide if they want to exit the interstate sooner or take alternate routes.

The Maine DOT has been working to gradually modernize the interstate system, which was built in the 1950s, creating acceleration and deceleration lanes for exits that see high numbers of crashes. But Taylor said the new data show they need to work faster.

Source: Maine DOT
Interactive: Christian MilNeil

TROOPERS OPT TO CLEAR CRASHES

State police also have changed how they handle crashes on I-295. In cases where troopers once would have advised motorists to stay where they are after a crash, they now prioritize clearing the road as quickly as possible, Grzyb said.

“We know what will happen if we leave them there; it’s just going to create more crashes,” he said. “I think we’re all looking at the way we do business and trying to make adjustments as best we can.”

Taylor said the transportation department will continue working to address the congestion. If the department’s study shows the road is over capacity, she said, the agency would seek ways to reduce volume through alternate routes or ride sharing before it considered expanding the roadway itself.

“We have a lot, a lot of people who are flat-out opposed to a third lane,” Taylor said. “It would not be an easy project to get forward and, you know, we’re hoping we can do some other things to make this a safer experience.”

In the meantime, she urges drivers to take responsibility for their behavior on the road.

“We can’t promise you you’re going to get home safe,” she said. “You have to own a piece of that yourself, and that means being alert, being defensive and paying attention.”