Saturday, May 25, 2013
PORTLAND - A temporary new lane configuration for outer Congress Street will become permanent, city officials said late Friday.
The city said it will retain the new lane setup, which promotes safety by reducing four lanes of through traffic to two and adding a center turn lane from a point west of Westbrook Street to Westland Avenue, near Westgate Shopping Center.
Critics contend that putting the same amount of traffic into half the number of lanes will result in more congestion, even if it reduces back-ups behind cars turning left off the heavily traveled arterial.
"What they're planning to do is absolutely ridiculous," said Charlton Smith, who lives on River's Edge Drive off outer Congress. "I've never seen traffic engineers and city officials do something this stupid -- and I'm 74 years old."
But city officials said the changes will improve safety on the street, even if it does so partly by slowing travelers.
"This is a really bold move on our part," said Michael Bobinsky, Portland's director of public services.
By adding a narrow bike lane and configuring the road to accommodate not only commuters, but also residents of the neighborhoods just off Congress Street, the new traffic configuration "facilitates the notion that this corridor is for all users," Bobinsky said.
The city decided to try the new lane design after the Maine Department of Transportation said it was about to go ahead with repaving the section Congress Street that carries about 25,000 cars a day.
After a skim coat of pavement was applied, city and state officials put down the new lines and started soliciting feedback from drivers.
The online survey was overwhelmingly negative: 71 percent of the respondents said the city should go back to the configuration that featured two travel lanes in each direction. Weeding out the commuters, the city said the survey showed that 62 percent of those Portland residents who responded also favored the old lane setup.
But at public meeting last week, most of those attending were in favor of the new lanes.
Even though only about 30 people attended the meeting, Bobinsky said their take on the new configuration backed up what the traffic engineers had also determined was a better approach.
"We appreciate the views of the commuters," Bobinsky said, "but we also want to make sure everyone is safe."
Bobinsky noted that part of the road will be marked off for use by bikers, even though it's too narrow to be officially considered a bike lane: drivers will see signs reminding them to share the road, he said, which should make them more safety conscious.
The center turn lane will make the road a friendlier place for drivers to make a left turn into neighborhoods, he said, reinforcing the notion that the road is more than a throughway from South Portland and Westbrook to downtown Portland.
"This is a major arterial (with) high traffic volume and it also serves as one of our entrances to the city as well as a neighborhood transportation corridor," Bobinsky said.
Some people, however, feel the city didn't do a good job of explaining the need for a change.
"If this is such a great thing, what is it supposed to do?" asked Portlander Bill Flaherty. "Plus, they did it overnight" without much notification.
Smith agreed and said he expects to see regular traffic tie-ups as a result.
Congress Street "is a rushing river of traffic," he said, "and they're trying to cram 90 percent of that traffic into one lane."
Another opponent, Keith Tasker, was happy to learn that the final plan calls for extending the center turn lane about 600 feet farther west than in the original plan, meaning his road -- also River's Edge Drive -- will have a designated lane for those turning left into it from Congress Street,
But he said it remains to be seen whether the road will work well for all those who travel on it.
"The proof is in the pudding," he said.
Bobinsky said the final layer of blacktop will be put down beginning Sunday night, weather permitting, with the new lane configurations repainted once that work is done in a week or two.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: