WESTBROOK – After more than a decade of planning, a $5.5 million project to reconstruct William Clarke Drive in Westbrook begins Tuesday, the day after the Memorial Day holiday.

The approximately 1-mile project on the four-lane road is expected to take more than a year. The plan calls for transforming the state road – on which cars now often race along in excess of the 35 mph speed limit, causing pedestrians to scuttle out of the way — into a tree-lined boulevard with a grassy median planted with trees, shrubs and flowers.

It still will have four lanes. However, the addition of the median, left-turn lanes and pedestrian safety devices such as two crosswalks with lights in the pavement that will light up and flash when people are using them, are expected to calm traffic and make the road safer for pedestrians.

The project will run from where William Clarke Drive intersects with the Westbrook Arterial at its eastern end to Saco Street at its western end. And until the project is completed as expected in July 2011, it will cause headaches for motorists and pedestrians, city and state officials warn.

That’s because only three lanes of the roadway are slated to be open at times during construction, shunting many of the approximately 23,000 vehicles that travel on the busy roadway daily onto other streets. Much of the traffic is expected to move over to Main Street, already used by 19,000 vehicles each day.

However, when the project is completed, it will result in a road that benefits the city in numerous ways, city officials say.

“This piece is a huge part of Westbrook becoming a destination community,” said City Councilor John O’Hara, who was part of a committee that began planning for improvements to the state road years ago.

He said Westbrook has become a “pass-through community.” Because of its location, anyone heading west from greater Portland has to travel through Westbrook, he said. Thousands of commuters that live west of Portland but work in that major city do that every day.

The way William Clarke Drive is constructed now encourages people just to drive through Westbrook, O’Hara said. He believes the finished boulevard will encourage people to visit, shop and eat in the community.

It also will help Westbrook residents who live on the south side of the drive to be able to walk to shops on Main Street, he said. Now, O’Hara said, many of those residents find it easier to hop in their cars and go the Maine Mall rather than try to cross four lanes of speeding traffic on foot.

When the road project is finished, he said, those Westbrook residents south of William Clarke Drive will have easier pedestrian access to nearby Main Street, benefiting themselves and local businesses.

“Bear with us,” O’Hara said. “The end product will be as pedestrian friendly as we can make it.”

He said that pedestrians clearly were not a focus when the state first built the road decades ago.

Eric Dudley, city engineer, said the road was constructed in the late 1960s. It used to be called Wayside Drive, a name some people still use today.

However, it was renamed in more recent years in honor of a former longtime Westbrook city clerk, he said.

Planning for the reconstruction of the road started in 1999, Dudley said.

He and O’Hara said lack of funding has been the primary reason that the project has taken this long to start.

Federal and state funds now will cover $4.3 million of the project’s cost and the city’s share is just above $1 million. The City Council on Monday agreed to include those funds in the capital improvements budget for the new fiscal year, O’Hara said.

Dudley said $1 million of the federal money is an earmark that the former 1st District Democratic congressman, Tom Allen, secured for the project early in the process.

Because the road is a state road, the Maine Department of Transportation is in charge of the project. The contractor is R.J. Grondin & Sons of Gorham.

“There will be delays,” warned Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, who said 22,800 vehicles use the road daily. “You can’t avoid delays with that many vehicles using that road.”

Although it’s a state project, Dudley said the city has been the major impetus behind the reconstruction because the roadway has such a great impact on the city.

“It’s very unfriendly and we’re trying to make it more friendly and more downtown feeling,” Dudley said. “I think that (the changes) will help people keep to a reasonable speed and hopefully make people realize that the pedestrian traffic is there.”

Latti said the project is due to be finished in July 2011. However, O’Hara said it’s possible unforeseen delays could push it out to 15 months or more.

Dudley said one key feature of the project is the raised, landscaped center median. It will have trees, shrubs, flowers and grass. The median and the sides of the road also will have ornamental street lighting similar to the lights installed along the boardwalk that runs along the Presumpscot River.

Because the width of the four lanes will remain unchanged, the roadway will need to be widened to accommodate the median, Dudley said. However, he said, the widening will occur mostly in the existing public right of way, with only minimal takings of some private land at certain intersections.

Many of the existing trees along the road will need to be removed in the widening, but many new ones will replace them along the road and in the new median. Among the plantings will be 25 Liberty elms, a type of elm resistant to Dutch elm disease, 25 maple trees, 16 Japanese lilac trees, 34 linden trees, 10 honey locust trees, and 42 red oaks, Dudley said.

The median will serve as a place for pedestrians to wait as they cross the four lanes of traffic, he said. And he said the median also will allow for designated left turn lanes at major intersections to ease traffic flow.

Another important feature is a sidewalk that will be added along the south side of the road. Dudley said none exists there now – the only sidewalk is on the north side of the road.

Two crosswalks such as the one at Church Street will have special lights installed in the pavement, he said. A pedestrian wanting to use the crosswalk can press a button to activate the flashing lights in the crosswalk to alert vehicles someone is using it. The lights can be used in the daytime but will be particularly helpful at night, Dudley said.

There won’t be a dedicated bike lane because there is no room for one, he said. Cyclists can share the road with other traffic or use Main Street, which is expected to get less traffic when the project is completed, he said.

One piece of the project expected to reduce traffic on Main Street is a major reconstruction of the intersection where William Clarke Drive meets the Westbrook Arterial. Dudley said that intersection will be reconfigured so that the arterial will naturally curve into William Clarke Drive, instead of being at right angles as it is now.

Dudley said the change is expected to encourage more vehicles to stay on William Clarke Drive instead of heading to Main Street down the arterial. In fact, the portion of the arterial between William Clarke Drive and Main Street will be turned into a narrower town way, he said.

The project also will add a new traffic signal at Mechanic Street and also coordinate all the traffic signals so that cars traveling the speed limit can hit successive green lights, he said.

In the first phase of construction, Latti said, one lane will be open eastbound and two open westbound as construction workers work on the south side of William Clarke Drive, doing such work as widening the roadway and removing trees.

In two or three months, the work will shift to the north side of the road, he said, where there will be two lanes open eastbound and just one open westbound.

Dudley urged commuters and other motorists to consider taking alternate routes during construction.

O’Hara said pedestrians on Main Street should take precautions because truck traffic, normally banned from that street, will be using that roadway during construction.

He said that despite the major inconveniences of the next year or so, “the reconstruction of William Clarke Drive is a great thing.”

William Clarke Drive, which carries almost 23,000 vehicles a day, will be transformed into a tree-lined boulevard with a grassy median planted with trees, shrubs and flowers. Among the plantings will be Liberty elms, maple trees, Japanese lilac trees, linden trees, honey locust trees and red oaks. The year-long project will run from where William Clarke Drive intersects with the Westbrook Arterial at its eastern end to Saco Street at its western end. And until the project is completed as expected in July 2011, it will cause headaches for motorists and pedestrians, city and state officials warn. (Photo by Rich Obrey)

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