Traffic backed up on I-295 northbound in Freeport in this 2017 file photo. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / The Portland Press Herald

FREEPORT — Freeport residents will vote March 9 whether to add a 12-foot-wide bicycle and pedestrian path to two Interstate-295 overpasses when the Maine Department of Transportation repairs the bridges in the coming years.

The I-295 Exit 20/Desert Road interchange overpass and the Exit 22/Mallet Dive interchange overpass, built in 1957, have been deemed structurally deficient and are slated to be replaced through a $19 million Competitive Highway Bridge Program Grant awarded in 2019.

The MDOT agreed to split the cost of a 10-foot-wide multi-use path added to the two bridges with the town, said Wayne Frankhauser, MDOT bridge program manager, which would’ve cost the town $480,000. However, because Freeport decided on a 12-foot-wide path, taxpayers have to foot the bill for the added two feet, bringing the total to $634,000.

The town council considered whether to agree to a 10-foot wide path, but ultimately voted 6-1 Tuesday, with Egan being the only dissenting vote, to approve a 12-foot-wide path, per the request of town committees and residents.

Adam Bliss, Freeport town engineer, said “eight-feet is considered the absolute minimum in terms of multi-use path widths, 10 feet is preferred and 12 feet is ideal,” because it allows two bicyclists to pass in opposite directions.

If the path is approved by voters on March 9, the town will pay for the bridge additions through a 10-year bond. In the second year of the bond, Jessica Maloy, Freeport finance director estimated taxpayers will see a 4-cent increase to the town’s now-$14 property tax rate per $1,000 of valuation. That would increase property taxes by $14 for a home in Freeport valued at $350,000.

Council Chairperson John Egan said he realizes an election in March isn’t convenient for residents, both because of the weather and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but he said MDOT is requiring the town to act quickly to meet its timeline.

“A vote by the town would be the evidence MaineDOT is requiring of the town in order to move forward with its design work,” said Egan. “We have this window of time between now and March to drum up support and enthusiasm for these improvements before the project moves forward or we have to wait another 75 years at least before we can have bike and pedestrian improvements on these two bridges. To me, that is the most compelling piece of this argument over why we’re having an election in the middle of March instead of June or November.”

Town Manager Peter Joseph said he’s excited to potentially make the bridges that link the two sides of Freeport more bike and pedestrian-friendly.

“Those bridges are two of the three connections that link the two sides of Freeport,” said Joseph. “If you look at town and where people live, there’s a large portion of the population that lives on the West side of town that now doesn’t have a great connection to downtown. There’s a shoulder on the bridges now, but it’s decidedly unfriendly to bikes and pedestrians.”

As traffic volumes between Portland and Brunswick grow, and with the I-295 corridor serving as a main corridor for the state’s economic markets in Portland, Boston and New York, officials decided it was time to replace the aging bridges, which were built at the same time as the interstate. MDOT plans to put the project out to bid in Sept. 2021, and hopes to complete construction in 2023.

The Merrill Road Interchange Bridge, which carries Desert Road over I-295, sees 9,408 vehicles per day, and the Mallett Drive interchange, which carries routes 125 and 126 over I-295, carries 16,878, according to data from the Maine Department of Transportation.


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