Since its inception in the early 1970s, Interstate 295 redefined the Portland peninsula, creating a demographic border along socioeconomic and racial lines. By cutting through (and cutting off) several neighborhoods, the roadway and its ramps paved the way to disinvestment in Kennedy Park, Bayside, Parkside, St. John Valley and Libbytown.

Land now occupied by Interstate 295 ramps could be used for critical needs in Libbytown, like housing and job creation. 2013 photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Today, Maine taxpayers maintain these same highway ramps, which are redundant, unsafe and land intensive. Reimagining this land is a start to rebuilding these communities. Although I-295 itself is here for the foreseeable future, the ramps can at least be worked around.

For over a decade, Portland citizens and city officials have been working to eliminate excessive infrastructure at I-295 exits 5, 6 and 7 and put the blighted land to better use. The land occupied by these ramps could be used for critical needs like housing and job creation, while increasing traffic safety and maintaining current levels of service.

While often taken for granted, the location and functionality of urban highways are by no means sacrosanct. Their placement often had less to do with the immediate transportation needs and more to do with the forces of finance and labor bearing down on politics. Oftentimes, these forces determined that the most mutually beneficial place to build was where the demolition of homes would be most abundant – and the population most vulnerable. The effect on Portland’s housing has been devastating to the workforce and the tax base. The virtue, or necessity, of today’s urban highways arises mainly from the fact that they are already there and that they are difficult to move.

Major events are bringing about the swift realization of changes that had recently seemed like pipe dreams, from introducing car-free streets, to dismantling systems of racism. Environmental policy is also moving forward. The federal Great American Outdoors Act will rebuild and restore open space, while Gov. Mills’ Climate Council just recently released its recommendations – among them, a large reduction in traffic within the next two decades. In short, we have the opportunity to radically reconfigure sooty, wasted lands into parks and housing.

While Exit 7 is mired in the Franklin Street redesign, there is a discussion on removing the antiquated cloverleafs at Exit 6 (Forest Avenue/University of Southern Maine) and replacing them with a design that would liberate land for housing and enhancements to the USM campus. USM is largely an untapped asset that could be a landmark and a revenue engine drives the city’s cultural and economic vitality. But the campus is hidden behind the highway and feels more like an office park than a metropolitan university.

At Exit 5 the improvements were analyzed and are known. In 2012 the Maine Department of Transportation issued a request for proposals to study the concerns. The resulting 2013 Libbytown Traffic Circulation and Streetscape Study made many sensible recommendations:

• Close four redundant ramps along Congress Street and Park Avenue, which are high-crash locations (the interchanges on the Fore River Parkway are better engineered and provide for a gentler integration with local traffic).

• Restore two-way traffic to the local streets.

• Make the streetscape more walkable.

• Redevelop the land, creating housing, jobs and vital economic activity.

The two original main concerns about the plan have been put to rest. The first was that the simultaneous 2013 closing of the Exit 5 ramps and the buildout of Thompson’s Point would generate so much traffic that all 11 interchanges would be needed. The Thompson’s Point Transportation Demand Management Plan has been successful – there just isn’t anywhere near the amount of traffic that was once anticipated. People have been getting there through car pooling, transit, walking and bicycling.

The other major concern was that closing the ramps would slow emergency vehicles’ access to Maine Medical Center. But the extra traveling distance is negligible. It would be more than offset by the new plan, which would eliminate long backups for emergency vehicles (and everybody else) by restoring two-way traffic to Park Avenue and granting access to the local streets that are unimpeded by at-grade train crossings.

Major events are revealing that our systems are neither as good, nor as fair, as advertised. But crisis is also an opportunity. Now is the time for state officials to work with the people of Portland to undo poor planning and to build equity in our underserved communities.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.