Portland officials are close to drafting a strategy to address conflicting transportation needs and crippling traffic on Commercial Street, the city’s critical waterfront thoroughfare.

The narrow corridor has to accommodate Portland’s marine businesses, a thriving tourism hub and weekday traffic into downtown and new commercial development in the East End. In the last few years – with droves of summertime visitors and cruise ship passengers, commuters and commercial traffic vying for the same space – the corridor isn’t accommodating anyone very well.

“Honestly, in my opinion, it is one of the most dynamic streets and corridors in the entire region,” said Sara Zografos, director of the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, a planning and funding organization.

Realigning intersections, shortening or moving some crosswalks, creating dedicated delivery parking zones, adding cycling infrastructure and public transit measures all are under consideration.

“Looking at how to accommodate and make successful all of those different uses is complicated,” Zografos said. “Proposing recommendations that don’t alienate any one of those uses and finding common ground so they can live in harmony is what they are trying to do.”

Plans to improve Commercial Street mobility is part of a $138,000 transportation operations and master plan for the area.

A public meeting is planned for 6 p.m. Aug. 13 at the Portland Public Library for officials to present possible changes to make traveling Commercial Street safer and more efficient. Planners hope to have a draft report prepared by this fall and put it in hands of city government by the end of the year.

Working with consultants WSP USA and citizen feedback from public meetings in October and December, staff outlined three concepts to improve mobility on the street: to improve vehicle travel time and reliability, to aid access and business on the city wharves and piers, and to improve pedestrian, cycling and public transit infrastructure.

Strategies accompany each of the concepts, but the city does not intend to choose one over any other, said Transportation Program Manager Bruce Hyman.

“We are looking to tease out the best elements of each concept from the public and come up with a strategy,” he said. “This is not an either-or, it is a combination.”

Improving waterfront access was particularly important for the Waterfront Alliance, an advocacy group for Portland’s fishermen and marine businesses, but was also important for residents overall, Hyman said.

Anxiety about the waterfront’s future led to zoning changes this year to protect marine businesses. Those concerns extend to heavy traffic that hinders deliveries of seafood, bait and other perishable products, and keeps waterfront workers tied up in traffic, Hyman said.

“The highest priority was to ensure the working waterfront can work,” he said.

CROWDS, CROSSINGS

Improving intersections and pedestrian crossings is a common theme in draft concepts prepared by the city. Vehicle traffic increased 25 percent, to about 900 vehicles an hour, during weekday afternoons in the height of summer last year.

Foot traffic, on the other hand, increases almost 30 times compared with off-peak weekday hours, according to WSP USA survey data. More than 3,000 people an hour were using the Commercial Street crossings at Pearl and Moulton streets at certain times, according to a WSP USA report.

That volume of foot traffic, combined with inefficient signals and heavy traffic, creates snarls and backups at intersections along the corridor, Hyman said.

“There are people searching for parking space, pedestrian crossings, the intersections are large, it leads to a bunch of inefficiencies overall,” he said. “There is lots of inefficiency in the system and lots of conflict.”

Some of the proposals call for consolidating or removing some of the pedestrian crossings, making the intersections more compact and re-timing traffic signals.

Another issue is delivery trucks’ use of the center turn lane for short-term loading and unloading. One consideration is to create dedicated curbside loading zones to free up center lanes and improve traffic flow. But that could take up on-street parking, which is already severely limited during peak season.

Those are the kinds of compromises that may need to be made to improve the corridor for everyone, Hyman said.

“That is the intent of the exercise,” he said. “If you do something, there is a trade-off. You might gain in terms of efficiency in the street and safety, but there might be a negative impact on on-street parking.”


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