March 18, 2010

Crowd criticizes I-295 widening

TESS NACELEWICZ

— By

Staff Writer

Don't widen Interstate 295 and instead invest more in public transportation such as rail and bus service.

Those were the predominant messages from a standing-room-only crowd of more than 70 people at a public meeting in Portland on Wednesday night on a proposal to address congestion and safety on I-295 through such measures as making interchanges safer and possibly widening the highway's busiest sections.

''I was frankly flabbergasted to see that you had widening I-295 as a solution to the problem at a time when everyone is concerned about climate change, air pollution and the cost of fuel,'' said Bob Greenberg of Portland.

Others echoed his comments. They called on the Maine Department of Transportation to do more to promote alternative transportation, such as commuter rail service between Portland and Brunswick, and address existing noise problems on the highway.

The Department of Transportation called the meeting to get public comment on a multimillion-dollar draft plan called the I-295 Corridor Study. The plan is the product of years of work by the department, working in conjunction with Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Committee.

When the study is finalized, perhaps in a few months, it will provide a blueprint for safe and efficient travel for the next 20 years on the busy 30-mile stretch of the highway from Scarborough to Brunswick.

The Department of Transportation has been holding public meetings in communities along that corridor to get feedback on the study. Department officials said that feedback would be considered in the final report.

Greg Nadeau, the state's deputy transportation commissioner, told the crowd at Portland City Hall that the department is ''very interested in any ideas or suggestions you have.''

What officials heard was primarily criticism of widening the highway.

The study calls for widening I-295 from four lanes to six from Exit 2 in South Portland to Exit 9 in Portland, at a cost of $50 million, and from Exit 11 in Falmouth to Exit 15 in Yarmouth, at a cost of $18 million.

The new lanes would be built on land taken from the median strip.

The idea is to add capacity to I-295, which is busiest in South Portland and Portland, where 75,000 to 85,000 vehicles travel it each day. About 50,000 vehicles travel between Falmouth and Brunswick each day.

Over the next 20 years, traffic is expected to increase 20 percent, state officials say.

They said that the widening would be six to 20 years in the future, and that there is now no funding for it. They also said the widening still needs study and evaluation, and could be made unnecessary by other factors such as alternative transportation or possible toll reductions on the Maine Turnpike in the Portland area.

Those at the meeting contended that widening I-295 would increase congestion by attracting more drivers.

Steve Gordon of Portland said that Los Angeles' highways show how ''If you build it, they will come.''

One speaker asked those in attendance to raise their hands if they opposed widening I-295. Most of the people in the room put their hands in the air.

Part of Wednesday's meeting focused on a study that the Department of Transportation is just starting, to look at rail and bus service opportunities between Portland and Brunswick, and Portland and Auburn. Officials hope the two-year Portland North Alternative Transportation Study will lead to a federal grant for alternative transportation.

But Christian McNeil, vice chairman of Portland's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, accused the state of not doing enough to promote rail.

McNeil, who opposes widening I-295 and wants it discontinued through the center of Portland, won applause as he spoke.

Nadeau said that although the study of alternative transportation is new, the department has been working to promote rail service for a decade.

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791-6367 or at:

tnacelewicz@pressherald.com

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