Biddeford City Council has issued a resolution seeking a new Maine turnpike exit north of Exit 32 to combat traffic congestion. The MTA recently released a study calling for major improvements to the Biddeford exit. Tammy Wells Photo

BIDDEFORD — The City Council narrowly approved a resolution supporting a new full Maine Turnpike Authority exit north of the current Exit 32 in a bid to alleviate traffic congestion in Biddeford and in neighboring communities.

The April 6 vote was 5 to 4, with Councilors Doris Ortiz, Amy Clearwater, William Emhiser and Michael Ready dissenting.

A study commissioned by the Maine Turnpike Authority points to a different solution. Rather than a new exit, the MTA study recommends extensive work at the existing Exit 32.

The Biddeford City Council resolution points out that a significant portion of the congestion is generated from outside Biddeford by those traveling from smaller neighboring communities in order to access the Maine turnpike. It notes the lack of a westerly access to Exit 32, that the growing sprawl west of Biddeford has increased traffic in the city, and estimates that 20 percent of the traffic that moves through downtown Biddeford does so for the sole purpose of accessing the turnpike. The resolution further notes that the increasing commuter traffic through the city adversely impacts the quality of life of Biddeford residents with adverse environmental impacts; increasing risks to pedestrians, cyclists and vehicle occupants; and increases the property tax burden for operations  and future capital costs. It points out that the costs to the city to address traffic issues would “greatly exceed” the expected costs to add a new turnpike exit within the city limits.

The resolution states that the City Council believes a full exit north of Exit 32 would be a regional benefit.

The vote came about two weeks after the Maine Turnpike Authority released the results of a safety and capacity study at Exit 32, which concluded with a number of recommendations.

The MTA study, conducted by HNTB Corporation of Westbrook, and released March 22, ultimately concludes that the configuration that provides the greatest regional mobility with the least cost and best operational benefits is the “folded diamond interchange” with two southbound off-ramp lanes and connections between Route 111 and South Street.

A study commissioned by the Maine Turnpike Authority recommends a number of phased improvements to Exit 32, including this one, referred to as the “folded diamond.” Courtesy image

The study recommended four phases including queue detection and an extended southbound off ramp deceleration lane in the first phase; construction of a connection from Exit 32 southbound to Route 111 and a second southbound off ramp with follow up evaluation of the Exit 32 and Route 111 intersection for potential additional improvements in Phase 2; a South Street connector completed MTA interchange to a folded diamond in the fourth phase. The MTA Exit 32 study can be read at: https://www.maineturnpike.com/MaineTurnpike2012/files/61/6121ad5b-8302-43b1-a723-ff68ba5e31c8.pdf

According to the MTA study, the main line of the turnpike through Biddeford services an average of 70,000 vehicles per day, with more than a third of it using Exit 32.

“More than a third of that volume uses the interchange at Exit 32 as an access point, making it one of the busiest interchanges on the turnpike,” the study states. “These vehicles are destined for Route 111, a vital 14-mile state highway connecting Alfred to Biddeford and for the Biddeford Connector, connecting vehicles to coastal routes. Traffic volumes double from its beginning in Alfred as it moves east towards its busiest section at Exit 32, servicing an average of nearly 30,000 vehicles per day at the interchange. Regularly, the southbound off-ramp backs up to the mainline during weekday peak afternoon periods creating congestion and safety concerns.”

City councilors discussed the resolution calling for a full MTA exit prior to their vote.

Ready said he believes an exit is needed — he pointed out there’s been talk about a possibility of an exit or entrance just south of Exit 32. He said he isn’t convinced an exit north of Exit 32 and South Street is the answer.

“I’m not convinced it wouldn’t destroy that whole area from South Street into town,” said Ready. He said he agreed with the thrust of the resolution but not some of the elements of it.

City Manager James Bennett said the MTA has taken some preliminary looks at the situation over the past 10 years. He said the MTA would examine  state and federal policy and that the city would have a seat at the table. If it turns out a need was demonstrated, costs would have to be put into the MTA’s capital plan, and he estimated there would be a minimum of 4 to 6 years before any action would be taken.

“I think they’ll do exactly whatever they want anyway,” said Clearwater. “And we haven’t done enough research on this particular position. If we worded it more vaguely, I would be in support.”

Lessard said the City Council had been talking about the issue since 1993. “The traffic is all going west. If there is a way to get that out of neighborhoods and makes it a shorter way to get west …” he said, noting the volume of traffic on South street, May Street and others.

“I support it, we’ve been talking about this forever, if it is where we’re saying, or down the road,” said McCurry. “We need the MTA to take this seriously and come up with a plan to go west. We have a good north and south, nothing east and west.” He said with Maine House Speaker Rep. Ryan Fecteau at the State House. “Maybe we can push them along.”

A member of the public said she was opposed to a new exit, saying she felt it was not well researched and doesn’t believe it would achieve the intended goals.

Preliminary plans for turnpike improvements on the turnpike in neighboring Saco were released in January.

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