Crews with Gordon Contracting reopen access to Free Street in Portland on Wednesday. The street will be closed off again Monday morning until Dec. 22 so the company can complete paving work in front of the Portland Museum of Art. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The company that began rebuilding Congress Square last spring met the city’s deadline to open Free Street to traffic on Wednesday – if only for a few days.

The $2.6 million road project, which ran into repeated delays and tied up traffic at Congress and High streets for most of this year, is expected to bring similar disruptions next year, company officials say, especially if the city decides against continuing construction this winter.

The next phase of the project requires long-term lane closures on Congress and High streets, which would make snow removal even more challenging than usual. But getting back to work right after the holidays could cut construction time in half, said Brian Howard, president of Gordon Contracting of Sangerville.

A rendering of the planned redesign of Congress Square, which aims to improve sidewalks, landscaping and safety for pedestrians and motorists and will feature new public art. Rendering courtesy of WRT Planning + Design

“We’d like to start the next phase as soon as possible to limit the impact on the tourist season, businesses and motorists next year,” Howard said at the project site on Wednesday. “If we resume in the spring, we’ll be here through the summer.”

Gordon Contracting removed traffic barriers at the top of Free Street at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, allowing vehicles to enter the one-way street from Congress Street, downtown Portland’s main thoroughfare.

Before the project began, vehicles accessed Free Street from High Street, a busy two-lane, one-way street that crosses Congress and has been reduced to one lane near the intersection since April.

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Free Street will remain open at Congress Street until 6:30 a.m. Monday, when it will be closed again so workers can finish installing a swath of granite paving in front of the Portland Museum of Art, said Drew Straehle, project manager.

The work site in front of the museum and along High Street remained enclosed in chain-link fencing.

Paving and other work near the museum will be completed by Dec. 22, when both Free Street and the closed lane of High Street will reopen permanently to traffic, Straehle said.

Relief for motorists, pedestrians and area businesses will be short-lived, however, because rebuilding Congress Square in front of the art museum is only 50% of the project, Howard said.

Work on the three other corners at Congress and High streets, starting with the corner at Congress Square Park, will require similar lane closures on Congress and on High Street near the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

The road project, including a redesigned intersection, sidewalk upgrades and the removal of a slip lane from High Street to Free Street, is part of a $7.2 million overhaul to Congress Square that includes new public art in the park and a plaza in front of the art museum.

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But the months-long closure of Free Street has caused frustration for motorists, pedestrians and nearby businesses. In September, the popular Dogfish Bar & Grille closed indefinitely, and the owner said the city’s reconstruction of Congress Square was a factor.

City officials didn’t respond to a request for an update on the project’s status on Wednesday.

Public Works Director Mike Murray said last week that Free Street may close again periodically as work continues on the redesign of Congress Square.

“The idea is to keep that street open as much as possible,” Murray said. “We are running out of (good) weather time and we need to have the street open for winter operations.”

City officials initially estimated that revamping the intersection at Congress, Free and High streets would be done by mid-June 2022, and the rest of the road project would be done by June 2023. Murray said last week the city doesn’t have a timeline for the remainder of the project.

Brian Howard, owner of Gordon Contracting, talks about the project as his crews reopen Free Street in Portland on Wednesday. “We’d like to start the next phase as soon as possible to limit the impact on the tourist season, businesses and motorists next year,” Howard said. “If we resume in the spring, we’ll be here through the summer.” The city is concerned about construction impeding snow removal during the winter. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The project experienced delays before it got started, Howard said.

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Gordon’s contract for the road project initially called for construction to start in September 2021, but city officials pushed the start to April 2022 to avoid snow removal problems last winter, he said.

In May, Gordon’s crews uncovered two underground utility vaults at the head of Free Street that had been paved over years ago and didn’t appear on the project’s plans, Howard said. Neither Central Maine Power Co. nor Consolidated Communications knew about the vaults, he said.

It took several weeks for the utility companies to design, build and install modern concrete vaults that could withstand heavy traffic. The road project was put on hold during that time, Howard said.

UNEXPECTED OBSTACLES

In August, workers encountered a second Consolidated underground vault on High Street that hadn’t been marked during the Dig Safe process, Straehle said. The damage knocked out phone and internet service to some Consolidated customers and took several days to repair.

The road project ran into further delays when workers unexpectedly hit ledge beneath the site, making it difficult for subcontractors to complete wiring and foundation work for street lights; and when the company was renegotiating contract terms in August to account for delays and project conditions considered outside its control, Straehle has said.

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At the time, Portland officials said they were on the verge of declaring Gordon Contracting to be in default and asked the company to meet with the city’s bond representatives to help speed up the project. City policy requires that all projects over $125,000 be bonded as a way of protecting city funds and guaranteeing work gets done at the cost outlined in a contract.

The company said there was no need for the meeting and that it was committed to finishing the project.

Murray said the bond meeting was held and the city continues “to work with the contractor to complete as much of the project as possible before we are forced into a winter shutdown.”

Given the advanced age of the city’s streets and unknown condition of underground infrastructure, Howard expects workers will run into similar delays and disruptions on Congress and High streets as the project continues.

“It’s going to be just as unknown as this was,” he said.

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