August 29, 2013

Baxter Boulevard's future: Never on Sunday?

The Portland street will reopen to traffic soon. But the calm of the months-long closure could return on a regular basis.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Baxter Boulevard is expected to re-open to traffic within the next week or two after an eight-month-long shutdown for sewer upgrades.

Today's poll: Baxter Boulevard

Do you think a section of Baxter Boulevard should be closed for recreational use on Sundays?

Yes

No

View Results

click image to enlarge

A bicyclist rides on the recently paved Baxter Boulevard as workers pave a parking area Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013. The boulevard will reopen soon after an eight-month closure.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

However, city officials are pursuing a plan that would keep part of the boulevard closed to motor vehicles on Sundays from April to November.

A roughly 1.4-mile stretch of Baxter Boulevard has been closed to vehicles since late January for the construction of a $10 million sewer and stormwater improvement project. It's now expected to reopen shortly after Labor Day.

Michael Bobinsky, the city's director of public services, said he and several community groups will ask the City Council on Sept. 9 to close a roughly one-mile stretch of the roadway one day a week so it can be available for recreational activities such as running, biking, in-line skating and skateboarding.

The Back Cove trail that runs alongside the boulevard is not paved, so it is not conducive to skateboarding and Rollerblading.

Under the proposal, the section from Interstate 295 to the entrance to Payson Park would remain open at all times, but Payson Park to Vannah Street would be closed to vehicles from 9 a.m. to about 4 p.m. on Sundays.

The proposal is among a growing number of "Open Street" programs in the U.S. that promote active transportation and healthy living choices, while trying to build a sense of community, said Kara Wooldrik, executive director of Portland Trails, which proposed the idea.

"It's growing dramatically," Wooldrik said about Open Streets. "This can be a way to show that biking and walking and other transport methods are equally as important as cars."

The city has been increasing its efforts to make city streets more bike- and pedestrian-friendly. It recently adopted a "Complete Streets" policy putting cyclists and pedestrians on the same level as vehicles when redesigning roadways.

Meanwhile, the city is looking to improve access for bicyclists and pedestrians on arterials such as Franklin Street and may convert High and State streets into two-way roads and extend the Bayside Trail from Elm Street through Libbytown to the Portland Transportation Center.

Wooldrik said Open Streets first began in the northwestern part of the U.S. in the 1970s. The city tried to join the trend in the 1970s by closing Baxter Boulevard on a regular basis for recreation, but the program never took off, she said.

There are now 90 Open Street programs in North America, including more than 80 programs in the U.S., according to OpenStreetsProject.org. In Cambridge, Mass., for example, a roughly one-mile stretch of Memorial Drive along the Charles River is closed the first Sunday of each month.

The road offers residents sweeping views of the Boston skyline.

Baxter Boulevard runs along the shore of Back Cove and offers views of the Portland skyline. And, now that people have gotten used to the road being closed to traffic for eight months, the timing seemed right to give the Open Street program another shot.

"We've already changed people's behavior, so keep the momentum going and give this a try," Wooldrik said. "I hope this can become a signature event for Portland -- like the Art Walk" on the first Friday of each month.

In addition to Portland Trails, the city's Portland Recreation and Public Services Department, Healthy Portland, Back Cove Neighborhood Association and the Bicycle Coalition of Maine also worked on the effort.

The concept was endorsed in July by the Portland Bike-Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

Residents of the Back Cove area have not expressed any concerns over the street closure for the last eight months and grown accustomed to the traffic closure, said Tom Landry, the president of the Back Cove Neighborhood Association.

"I think people have really enjoyed having the peace that's afforded them all along Back Cove," Landry said.

Landry said the association supports closing the street on Sundays, even though it may add time and mileage to get from Interstate 295 to the neighborhood. In fact, some residents would like to see it closed to vehicles altogether, he said.

The new sewer and stormwater system installed during Baxter Boulevard's closure and paid for through sewer user fees consists of million-gallon storage tanks under the boulevard and in Payson Park.

It will go online in late September, Bobinsky said.

The tanks will capture stormwater and sewage during rain storms until it can be pumped to the East End Treatment Plant, preventing it from being pumped directly into Back Cove.

 

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings

 

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Today's poll: Baxter Boulevard

Do you think a section of Baxter Boulevard should be closed for recreational use on Sundays?

Yes

No

View Results