This view from Woodford Street shows Woodfords Corner, a five-way intersection, and its best-known landmark, the Odd Fellows Hall, at left with the clock tower. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Road crews will begin construction next week on a multimillion-dollar project to reconfigure Woodfords Corner, one of the city’s busiest intersections, in an effort to alleviate serious congestion and update a flagging streetscape that is unfriendly and dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists.

Work is expected to begin Monday and continue mostly at night until the end of the construction season this year, then pick up again in April and run as late as December 2018.

“It’s come to a point now where this part of the city is growing, becoming more active,” said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, which is managing the $5.65 million construction contract. “More pedestrians are out, more bicyclists are competing for the same space. We want to alleviate that and help with the flow of traffic through that intersection.”

To increase the flow of traffic, engineers are adding an outbound lane on Forest Avenue between Arlington and Clinton streets that will require eliminating roughly a half-dozen curbside parking spaces in front of the businesses between Woodford Street and Vannah Avenue.

For pedestrians, designers are planning to widen sidewalks, add crosswalks and build sidewalk bump-outs to shorten the distance that people crossing streets must traverse curb to curb. Planners also are eliminating a right-turn only lane leading onto Woodford Street from Forest Avenue in front of Odd Fellows Hall. In its place, designers will install a mini-park, which will feature a sculpture by artist Aaron Stephan that will likely resemble a bouquet of wilting and bending street lamps. The sculpture commission, which cost $25,000, has met with some criticism since it was approved by the City Council last year.

NIGHT WORK, ADVICE FOR DRIVERS

In addition to the beautification and traffic work, new railroad gates will be installed at the crossing near Concord Street. Eight-foot-wide bike lanes also will be installed in the area of the railroad crossing to help cyclists navigate the tracks, which cross the road at an odd angle.

The first phase of the work will be done by utility companies, Talbot said, before the surface-level reconfigurations begin.

Contractor Shaw Brothers of Gorham is expected to do most of the work between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. six days a week, but some work will be scheduled during the day and likely will cause significant traffic delays.

Talbot is urging motorists to avoid the area completely, seek other routes or be patient during lane restrictions.

The project is the culmination of years of planning that began in 2012 with an extensive study of the Forest Avenue corridor between Interstate 295 and Woodfords Corner, said Jeff Levine, director of Planning and Urban Development for Portland.

The city has agreed to pay about $1.2 million of the overall cost. Funding also is coming from the state, which is kicking in about $500,000, $1.5 million in federal money and $3 million from utility companies.

CONGESTED AREA GETTING BUSIER

Developers and business owners have breathed new life into the area in recent years. A Somali restaurant opened there this year, and a nearby church is being redeveloped into 25 units of market-rate housing.

Woodford Food & Beverage, an upscale bistro that sits at the center of the intersection, also has brought more diners to the area, where tables give a front-row seat to the automotive mayhem during any given rush hour.

Restaurant owner Birch Shambaugh, who opened the eatery with his wife, Fayth Preyer, in January 2016, said he has an open mind about what the new design will bring, even if it means enduring months of construction-related congestion before the project wraps up next year.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that if it’s even partially successful it will be beneficial,” Shambaugh said. “I’ve sat in a lot of meetings with the DOT and the city and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the time and effort (they put in) to make sure we’re in possession of a level of understanding of what’s going on. I’m not an expert in multi-modal infrastructure projects, but anything that certainly substantively increases the walkability of Woodfords Corner is going to be beneficial.”

Other business owners are less sure that state plans contain the secret sauce.

Teresa Valliere, a representative of Friends of Woodfords Corner, a group that has endorsed the plan, did not return a call for comment.

Karl Silander, the owner of Bayou Kitchen on Deering Avenue, a few steps from Woodfords Corner, uttered a few unprintable words when told of the extensive schedule for construction.

Silander said he was contacted by the state’s engineers, who took time to hear him out and even walked around the intersection with plans in hand to explain what would occur.

But Silander believes that narrowing the roads using bump-outs will slow cars moving through the intersection – especially for in-bound commuters – the exact opposite of what the thoroughfare needs.

He also noted that state traffic engineers chose not to add a second inbound lane to Forest Avenue, meaning that as cars travel toward Portland and cross the railroad tracks, only the left lane is allowed to veer left to Forest Avenue. Some drivers, seeing that they’re being forced onto Deering Avenue, try to make a last-minute merge toward Forest.

“I just see a lot of jockeying for position,” Silander said. “People just don’t know what they’re doing in that corner half the time.”

Tim Merrill, 59, a second-generation owner of P.J. Merrill’s Seafood on Forest Avenue, said he is disappointed with the final plans, which he said seemed preordained and unchangeable, no matter his protestations.

“I think it’s a recipe for disaster,” Merrill said. “It sounds good on paper, but it doesn’t work in practice.”

Merrill, whose business has been operating out of the same storefront since 1948 and is in front of the roughly half-a-dozen parking spots being eliminated, said many of his elderly customers have said they will stay away if they cannot park in front of his door.

Although Merrill is lucky to have a rear lot, he said elderly folks don’t want to hassle with the walk, especially in winter with icy sidewalks posing an added risk.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

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