The Portland City Council voted 8-1 Monday night to further study a proposal to convert High and State streets – two major commuter thoroughfares – from one-way to two-way roads in an effort to make the area safer and more appealing to residents, pedestrians and cyclists.

The council action directs the city to hire a consultant to examine public safety concerns and for staff to refine cost estimates for the project, currently estimated at $3.2 million, $2 million of which is for traffic signal upgrades that will be needed regardless of the project.

Responding to criticisms and concerns point by point, City Councilor David Marshall, who represents the district the streets are in, said the conversion is consistent with the council’s Complete Streets policy, which aims to make streets safe for cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle. He framed the conversion as being similar to other traffic-calming measures, such as speed humps and street plantings, designed to make neighborhoods feel safer.

“What we’re talking about here is re-kitting a neighborhood to make it feel more cohesive,” he said.

The proposal is supported by neighborhood groups in the West End and Parkside neighborhoods, as well as Greater Portland Landmarks and the Portland Society for Architecture, as a way to unravel the car-centric urban renewal of the 1960s and 1970s and restore the historic neighborhood.

“It’s time to prioritize the people who live in these neighborhoods rather than the cars that traverse them,” said Ian Jacob, president of the West End Neighborhood Association.

Although the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce supported the council’s acceptance of a feasibility report and studying it further, the business group opposed the conversion itself, partly because of the loss of about 30 parking spaces among other concerns, as did the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel on High Street, which is currently experiencing traffic problems with guests arriving.

“From a practical standpoint you need to consider the fact that you have the largest hotel in the state and we’re doing well,” General Manager Bruce Wennerstrom said. “We have to think about how we’re going to handle traffic in front of that building.”

The proposal is also opposed by off-peninsula residents, according to one councilor.

“I get the feeling that in other parts of the city this may not be what people support,” said District 5 Councilor David Brenerman, who voted against the proposal. “People in this city still drive cars and trucks and they use them to access the city.”

The council action came after a 90-minute public hearing, at which the vast majority of speakers supported the conversion. Several supporters were concerned that city officials were balking about accepting the feasibility report without having funding for the project.

“That is not the issue before you,” said State Street resident Joe Gray, a former Portland city manager who urged the council to accept the report and further study the conversion.

The two-way conversion study began in the spring of 2014 and a public advisory group voted in June to send a report to the City Council stating that the conversion is feasible. However, the group did not weigh in on whether the conversion would be practical, nor did it discuss potential funding sources.

In recent weeks, public safety officials have begun voicing their concerns about longer anticipated response times with the two-way conversions. The city manager and some city councilors also are skeptical that the project would receive funding, given the level of need elsewhere in the city.

High Street runs one-way from Commercial Street to Forest Avenue. State Street runs in the opposite direction, from Forest to the start of the Casco Bay Bridge. Both were converted into one-way streets in 1972 and have been popular routes for commuters traveling through the city.


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