February 23, 2013

Portland earns dubious reputation: It's accident-prone

As the state decides where to direct funds to improve safety, officials concede there's never enough money to fix all the tricky intersections and distracted driving in the state's largest city.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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The intersection of Allen and Washington avenues, shown in January, makes the list of top crash locations in Portland. “We have a lot of tricky intersections and a lot of aggressive drivers,” said Jeremiah Bartlett, the city’s transportation systems engineer.

Gabe Souza/Staff photographer

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Northbound traffic on Tukey’s Bridge on I-295. The state chooses 15 to 30 projects every year to receive safety improvement funds, and officials say the spending almost always translates to lower crash numbers.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Bartlett said none of the locations surprised him. The Forest Avenue section, for instance, is at the top of the city's list for improvements and has received $1 million in funding from the state from the current work plan.

"It would be great if we could just take the list every year and knock the projects off," he said. "Obviously, that doesn't happen."


Other top sites in Cumberland County include two locations in Windham -- the intersection of Route 3 and Falmouth Road, and the merging of Pope, Ward and Windham Center roads -- as well as Cumberland Street and Warren Avenue in Westbrook, and the area of Brackett Road, Libby Avenue and New Portland Road in Gorham.

Augusta has just as many sites in the top 20 as Portland, two of which involve rotaries, often a source of confusion for drivers.

The highest-rated site from 2009 to 2011 was the intersection of Lewiston Road and Routes 9 and 126 in West Gardiner. From 2009 to 2011, there were 25 accidents there.

The second-ranked site, the off-ramp from Interstate 95 to Western Avenue in Augusta, had nearly four times as many accidents in that time but was still ranked lower.

To create its projects list, the MDOT uses a formula known as "crash rate factor" that takes into account the number of crashes and the number of vehicles traveling through each site, and then compares what actually happens to what the state predicts will happen based on a site's history.

It's not strictly a crash-per-capita formula.

Duane Brunell, a MDOT project manager, said the state's rankings are meant to evaluate a road's safety performance while comparing areas on an apples-to-apples basis. But he said the state uses the data as a starting point, not an end point.

"You can only tell so much from paper," he said. "Once we compile the list, then we have staff go out to these sites and look for any trends."

During every work plan -- usually a two- or three-year cycle connected to the department's budget -- projects are identified for completion depending on the amount of money expected to be available from the state and federal governments.

Transportation department spokesman Ted Talbot said the money set aside for safety improvements is derived from a complicated formula, but much of the funding is discretionary. The three-year work plan for 2013 through 2015 is expected to be finalized in the next few weeks, he said.

In the 2012 calendar year, the state approved 29 safety projects totaling just under $18 million. The biggest project was a $4.7 million rebuild of the busy Dunstan Corner intersection in Scarborough. The smallest was a $14,000 project in Otisfield that installed new safety signs and repaved shoulders on a section of Gore Road. Talbot said the funding for safety projects fluctuates from year to year, but he said it's also hard to calculate because of overlap.

For instance, a site or stretch of road that may already have been identified for improvements by the MDOT could receive funding outside of the safety improvement program. Another example might be a stretch of road that features more than one high-crash site. That may move up the priority list.

Maria Fuentes, director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, a watchdog over the upkeep of the state's roads and bridges, said the state, in her opinion, spends about half of what it should on roads and bridges. Areas where safety is a big concern are prioritized, but there is never enough money, she said.

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Additional Photos

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A driver merges onto Interstate 295 north from Baxter Boulevard. Accidents at that on-ramp and other high-crash sites in Portland are mostly fender benders, officials say.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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The northbound on-ramp to I-295 from Baxter Boulevard, photographed on Jan. 16, is one of eight multiple-crash sites in Portland involving the interstate highway.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer


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