March 15, 2010

Turnpike widening plan put on hold

ELBERT AULL

— By

Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Falling traffic numbers have put plans to widen a stretch of Interstate 95 in Greater Portland on ice.

The Maine Turnpike Authority has decided to delay adding two lanes to the highway from Scarborough to Falmouth for at least two years, said Conrad Welzel, head of government relations for the turnpike authority.

The decision comes at a time of rising fuel prices and sluggish monthly traffic numbers on Maine's busiest highway corridor.

''In the last few years, the traffic has been flat,'' Welzel said. ''The need is not around as much.''

Welzel announced the authority's decision at a joint meeting of the Portland and South Portland city councils on Monday.

The councilors met with state and federal transportation officials at the South Portland Community Center to discuss long-term transportation projects in the area.

Welzel said monthly traffic counts on the turnpike have either been flat or down almost all year compared with 2007.

The only month in 2008 in which there was an increase in traffic was April, according to the authority's traffic statistics.

The turnpike authority originally planned to begin a feasibility study on widening the highway this year in hopes of beginning work on the nine-mile stretch in 2012. The study has been pushed back at least two years, meaning work on the road wouldn't begin before 2014, Welzel said.

The Legislature approved the $75 million widening project, along with another that will replace several aging bridges, in 2007.

Welzel said the bridge work -- also estimated at $75 million -- will continue as planned.

He addressed city councilors after a sobering talk from Department of Transportation officials, who said the pending multibillion-dollar government bailout of Wall Street could have ripple effects that put long-term projects in Greater Portland on the shelf for years.

About $20 million worth of work that will widen a stretch of I-295 between exits 3 and 4 in South Portland and renovate interchanges in South Portland, Portland, Falmouth and Yarmouth has already received federal funding and will move forward next year as planned, department officials said.

But the recent financial turmoil has cast uncertainty on long-term initiatives that include a proposed commuter rail system from Portland to Brunswick and the reconfiguration of several other I-295 exits in Greater Portland, they told the group of city councilors.

''We're going to be more and more challenged just to maintain the system that we have,'' said Transportation Commissioner David Cole.

Staff Writer Elbert Aull can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

eaull@pressherald.com

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