AUGUSTA — City councilors say they’re getting an earful with a potential final vote days away on whether to change the traffic flow downtown from one-way to two-way.

But the messages various members of the City Council are getting from their constituents are as divided as councilors themselves appear to be on the issue. Some say most residents they’ve heard from are against it, while other councilors say the opposite – that nearly everyone they’ve heard from is for it.

At least two residents, meanwhile, said they believe that if city officials want to know what residents prefer, they should put a referendum question on the ballot and ask them.

“This shouldn’t be decided by five councilors,” said lifelong Augusta resident Robert Vachon, a former police officer who, in the 1960s, walked the downtown beat for six years. “I think it should go to referendum. And if it went to referendum, it wouldn’t pass.”

Vachon said he’s against the proposed change because he sees no reason for it. He said he’s talked to 50 to 60 people about the issue, and only four of them were in favor of the change. He said what the downtown really needs isn’t two-way traffic, but building owners who take more pride in their buildings and keep up and improve the appearance of the exteriors.

Resident Mary Saunders also told councilors, when they discussed changing traffic flow downtown last week, that putting the idea out to residents in a referendum would be a good way to find out which option they prefer for downtown, the current one-way traffic flow, or the proposed new two-way.

For now, city councilors have a vote scheduled on the proposal to change the now one-way middle section of Water Street to two-way traffic through downtown, sponsored by four of the eight city councilors, at Thursday’s upcoming council meeting.

Mayor David Rollins said in his 12 years as mayor and a councilor, he’s never gotten more unsolicited feedback on any other proposal than he has on the two-way traffic proposal. He said the vast majority of residents he’s heard from are against the change.

At-large Councilor Mark O’Brien said everyone in Augusta has a stake in the decision, not just downtown building owners, merchants or residents, and all residents he’s heard from citywide, other than downtown residents, have told him they are against the change, and cite concerns about the change in traffic patterns possibly bringing more traffic to other parts of the city.

“I don’t think this is a decision that should be driven exclusively by those who live and work downtown,” O’Brien said. “I can’t think of anybody who has spoken to me, outside of downtown, who is in favor of it. They tell me they don’t want to see the change. That’s going to be an important part of my decision, that’s for sure.”

Downtown merchants and leaders of the Augusta Downtown Alliance have said, at multiple public meetings on the proposal, changing from one-way to two-way traffic downtown is one of the first things they, and experts, recommend as a way to help revitalize the downtown by bringing more traffic there so passing motorists will see the shops and restaurants that are there.

Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit group focused on revitalizing the downtown area, said experts and all studies they’ve looked at indicate having two-way traffic in historic downtowns increases traffic, improves pedestrian safety and brings improved economics for downtown businesses.

Other city councilors said they’ve had the opposite feedback from their constituents.

Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said 11 people have contacted her to ask her to support the proposed change, while not a single resident of the ward, which includes the downtown area, has asked her to vote against it.

“I think people in the community who don’t live here and drive downtown will get used to whatever traffic pattern we pick,” Conti said.

At-large Councilor Jennifer Day said she’s heard from people who are for the change, but also others who are against it.

Converting the street, which is now one-way between Winthrop and Bridge streets, is expected to cost about $124,000, including the cost of repaving, updating traffic signals, modifying a traffic island at the corner of Water and Winthrop streets, making all crosswalks compliant with handicapped-accessibility rules and repainting lines for streets, crosswalks and parking spots.

Ward 3 Councilor Eric Lind said much of the $124,000 cost would be for improvements – such as better access for people with disabilities – that need to be done downtown eventually, anyway. He said only about $45,000 of the cost is directly related to the flow of traffic.

However, City Manager William Bridgeo recommended last week that if councilors decide to make the change, they should also consider adding funding for the Public Works Department because removing snow downtown is expected to be made more challenging if traffic is moving both ways.

Lesley Jones, public works director, said sometimes, after a storm has come but before city crews have a chance to remove piled-up snow downtown, snow blocks parking areas and people trying to park alongside the street can’t, so their parked vehicles jutting out into the travel lanes can restrict traffic to just one lane. With traffic all going in the same direction, it hasn’t been that big a deal when traffic is restricted to one lane of travel. But, Bridgeo noted, if traffic is moving in opposite directions, having traffic restricted to only one lane would be a major problem.

Bridgeo said Jones received an estimate from a private contractor that it would cost $75,000 for the winter for the city to have a contractor use a snowblower to remove snow from alongside the sidewalk and parking spots by blowing it into a dump truck and hauling it away after each storm.

Councilors will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Augusta City Center to consider several separate votes, such as changes to parking and traffic ordinances, necessary to change the flow of traffic downtown from one-way to two-way.

Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kedwardskj