Cover Story: Congestion strategies
In an era of belt-tightening, state and municipal planners turn to low-budget strategies as they grapple with traffic hot spots, but skeptics ask, 'Is that enough?'
By Douglas Rooks
Compared to the massive traffic jams commuters face daily in other states, congestion might not seem to be a major problem in Maine. Yet the Maine Department of Transportation estimates that delays due to congestion cost drivers $500 million a year in lost time and other expenses – and projections for the state’s urban areas show tie-ups dramatically worsening over the next 20 years.
"Congestion is increasing much faster than traffic volumes overall," said Dale Doughty, acting director of planning for MaineDOT. “We know traffic is going to increase, but we’re trying to ensure that drivers don’t see their commuting times lengthen, and shoppers can still get where they’re going,” he said. Specifically, without changes in the transportation system, traffic is expected to grow by a factor of 1.2, while congestion could grow by 1.5 – a major difference.
While congestion has become a more prominent focus for planners both at MaineDOT and at Maine’s regional transportation agencies, the traditional strategy of building new and wider roads has encountered serious limitations. Had he been asked about a specific congestion problem a few years ago, John Duncan, director of Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation (or PACTS), observed, “I would have said that was a big concern we had to do something about.” Now, though, “funding is so limited that we have to change the way we think” about traffic problems.
That doesn’t mean that Maine doesn’t continue to consider, and build, projects that have as their primary objects relieving congestion and improving highway safety. Examples of such recent big-ticket items include two projects that involved cost-sharing between the Maine Turnpike Authority and MaineDOT: the recently completed Gray bypass (Route 26A) and the Gorham bypass now under construction. The Gray bypass lies on the west side of the village, almost adjacent to a turnpike interchange. The new road has made a big difference in the backups from the complicated village center traffic pattern that dates to horse and buggy days.
And despite his general concern that there’s not enough money to deal with congestion through construction, PACTS did support the Gorham bypass project, Duncan said. The Gorham project, discussed for decades, was fast-tracked thanks to a federal transportation bill earmark authored by Representative Tom Allen. “Gorham has a thriving village downtown, in a nice college town, that was almost being destroyed by heavy truck traffic,” Duncan said. In some instances, he said, building new is still the best option. Some are skeptical to the idea that congestion can be contained through low-cost alternatives or simply by lowering expectations. Steve Sawyer, president of Sebago Technics, has seen design projects for public roads disappear in recent years, and questions whether the state can simply tough it out when it comes to highway funding.
Private developers, he points out, are required to keep traffic flowing when they build. “They’re held to a standard that mandates a level of service be maintained. If traffic flow goes below that, the costing of fixing it can be huge.” While he doesn’t know of any development projects that have recently been cancelled because of the cost of infrastructure upgrades, but several have been downsized because of the reluctance of state and local agencies to finance related improvements.
Widening what you can
The emphasis on austerity has not meant the end of large projects in all regions of Maine. One example of congestion relief through road building is the planned widening of the Maine Turnpike (I-95) in Greater Portland. The proposed project includes nine miles from the current end of its six-lane configuration at the Scarborough interchange (Exit 44) heading north through Portland to the exit for the Falmouth Spur (Exit 53) connecting with I-295. The $150 million widening would be financed through a toll increase scheduled for 2010 and a $25 million bond limit increase for the Maine Turnpike Authority. Authorizing legislation, LD 320, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Damon, co-chair of the Transportation Committee, was signed into law by Gov. John Baldacci in June.
While Duncan said that the authority’s ability to raise revenue through tolls was a definite factor in the decision to widen the turnpike rather than I-295, a case can be made the turnpike is the more appropriate location, given traffic trends. “The addition of two new interchanges in Portland has created more growth there,” he said. “People are now using the turnpike as an alternative to local roads where congestion is a problem.”
Somewhat more problematic is the potential widening of I-295 in the heart of downtown Portland, largely to improve safety at such hazardous interchanges as Forest Avenue, where exiting traffic crosses over incoming lanes with little space or margin for error.
To make the road safer here, it would need six lanes from Congress Street to the Franklin Arterial and would cost an estimated $30 million – with no identified source of funding to date.
What keeps the I-295 widening in the running at all, Duncan said, is that the lanes could be carved out of the current median strip, rather than expanding the footprint of the road. Even so, the proposal is controversial locally, and it’s not certain it would be approved even if funding is identified, he said.
Dale Doughty agrees that there is simply not enough money in the federal and state budgets, now and in the immediate future, to build our way out of congestion problems, so a variety of strategies must be employed to make headway. When considering solutions to congestion that don’t involve new roads or major widenings, MaineDOT looks at several categories to see what might help.
One of the quickest, and potentially the cheapest, is the use of “intelligent transportation systems” (ITS). ITS involves everything from coordinated traffic lights to remote sensors that monitor traffic, provide early warning of accidents or other causes of short-term congestion. Traffic monitoring and adjustment of stoplights can make the difference between a minor delay and a real tie-up, Doughty said. “A good system sees how things are running and reacts to developing obstacles so the traffic light changes don’t end up compounding the problem.”
Rob Kenerson, director of the Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System (BACTS) said that inefficient traffic signals are one of the biggest congestion problems identified in recent studies of the Interstate 95 and I-395 corridors in Bangor and Brewer, that MaineDOT is now studying for improvements. Some examples are egregious: “You can start up at a traffic light on one side of a bridge, and immediate see the light on the other side turning red,” he said.
The second mitigation strategy MaineDOT employs is what it calls “auxiliary lane improvements” that don’t involve major new stretches of road, but which may widen intersections to provide turning lanes, improve sightlines and remove bottlenecks.
An example of the latter is the addition of a lane on each side of outer Western Avenue (Route 202) in Augusta – paid for through impact fees from a new shopping mall nearby . The additional lanes eliminated a chokepoint from a traffic light added by the city on a two-lane section of the road. As a result, westbound traffic flows noticeably more freely during homeward commutes each afternoon.
Alyssas Shuman, co-owner of the Charlie’s auto dealerships on outer Western Avenue, said the congestion relief has been dramatic. “When we used to go out into traffic in the afternoon just to go downtown, it would take 40 minutes to get back. Now you can do it in no time.” The expansion of the dealership, which has grown from 17 to 230 employees over the years, was one of the factors adding cross-traffic to the highway.
Both signal coordination and lane improvements have been approved for Route 302 in North Windham, where explosive roadside growth along a one-mile strip causes considerable congestion. MaineDOT will spend up to $450,000 to improve five intersections in a project expected to reduce delays by 18 percent and cut fuel consumption from idling by 10 percent. The town of Windham has requested another innovation as part of the project – horizontal traffic lights such as those used in major cities, rather than the vertical signals traditionally used throughout Maine.
Other projects involve safety as much as congestion per se, adding truck lanes (for steep hills) and passing lanes (on the flat) to deal with the problem of slow-moving vehicles. Passing lanes are a feature of MaineDOT’s ongoing work on Route 111, a major commuter route between Sanford and Biddeford, where one slow vehicle can back up traffic a long way.
An example of a community dealing with seasonal congestion through traffic management is Ellsworth. That city earned MaineDOT approval for a scheme to make traffic one-way up Beckwith Hill beyond the junction of Routes 1 and 3. The new routing diverts traffic from Mount Desert Island onto an existing side street that connects to Route 1. This, in effect, creates a large roundabout. The project, undertaken to permit building of several new big box stores, including a Wal-Mart Supercenter along Route 1, is currently under construction and should be finished by next summer.
A third option that’s considered whenever service center communities seek congestion relief are alternative modes of transportation. The dominance of single-occupancy vehicles used for commuting is even more pronounced in Maine, thanks to its small and dispersed population, than in other places. Car pools, seasonal trolleys, expanded bus service, trains and even bicycles have all been employed in MaineDOT plans in recent years.
John Duncan is something of a skeptic about carpooling when it comes to congestion relief. Several years ago, he and his wife, who live in Yarmouth and both work in Portland, decided to begin traveling to work together. Although their commute along I-295, he said, is “like falling off a log,” they decided that global warming was such a pressing concern that personal contributions were necessary.
Other Portland-area commutes, though, are a lot tougher, Duncan said. “If you’re coming in on Brighton Avenue, or Washington Avenue, you’re crawling along from traffic light to traffic light.”
Yet, so far, there are not a lot of Mainers who have registered as carpool users, though there may be a lot of informal arrangements that aren’t recorded in the statistics. Even after a spike in inquiries following the recent surge in gasoline prices, PACTS, which runs the statewide Go Maine Commuter Connections program, reports that there are 3,923 registered commuters, with 270 carpools and 400 carpool participants. Go Maine also operates 13 vans carrying 204 commuters and has 252 people registered that commute by bicycle.
Bangor has seen significant growth in the use of its bus system – now catchily entitled “The BAT” – Bangor Area Transportation – thanks to better route management, attractive fares, and good old attention to detail. The bright red buses have attracted a lot of attention to the system, said Don Cooper, a BACTS planner who manages the bus system. They enable riders to easily distinguish an approaching bus, say, from a recreational vehicle of comparable size. Since 2000, ridership has been growing at least 8-10 percent a year, and sometimes faster. Annual passenger totals have grown from 496,000 in fiscal 2002 to at least 830,000 this year.
Routes have been reconfigured to provide greater convenience, and to avoid some traffic signals, that can drastically slow buses and put them behind schedule, Cooper said. One route, before revisions, had no fewer than 21 traffic lights.
Another major boost to the system was an agreement with the University of Maine that exchanged a lump sum payment for rides for all students and staff. The deal was in response to parking problems on the Orono campus. Foreign exchange students expect to ride public transportation, Cooper said, while many Mainers attending the university are now learning to leave their cars behind on trips downtown and to the mall.
Other changes to the system riders would like to see – Sunday trips and extended evening hours beyond the current 6:30 p.m. closing – will have to await better funding, Cooper said. “At $36 per hour per bus, and a five-hour extension, we’re talking $1,800 per day – which really adds up,” he said. Realistically, such expansions will require increased federal funding for congestion relief and pollution reduction.
There are places where commuter rail comes into the picture as well – specifically, in Portland, where the addition of buses to crowded I-295 would not provide optimal service, said Dale Doughty. A commuter rail line that would cover the area from Kennebunk to Brunswick is feasible, and would provide congestion relief in the Portland area, a recent corridor study shows. A commuter train, for instance, is probably a better option than a dedicated carpool lane, that would involve major construction and might not be the right capacity fit anyway, Doughty said. “A full-fledged third lane in each direction might be more than we need to make alternatives work,” he said.
MaineDOT’s fourth mitigation strategy goes under the title of "incident management," which refers to responses to accidents, breakdowns, and other unpredictable events that slow down traffic flow. For the busiest interstate sections, programmable signs warning of delays and promoting alternate routes are cost-effective, Doughty said. Such signs are now in use by the Maine Turnpike Authority and may be expanded in the future. Another option, not yet in use, are “service patrols” that would operate in addition to police, spotting accidents, offering assistance, and reporting locations through a centralized dispatch system.
The fifth and final strategy is access management – making sure that new or expanded entrances are properly spaced and constructed for efficient, safe access. Clustering entrance points and making sure traffic lights are far enough apart are key items, Doughty said. Lights that are too close or too numerous on a particular stretch of road cannot be effectively coordinated, no matter how sophisticated the computer program is.
Doughty admits that the five congestion relief strategies, taken singly, might not seem to amount to much when compared with the tide of cars and trucks traveling Maine roads daily. It’s frequently noted that despite significant increases in ridership for the Downeaster train from Portland to Boston, it still carries less than 2 percent of travelers along that route.
"Taken alone, each element may not seem like the answer," Doughty said."But together, they do make a significant difference." And as long as transportation budgets remain austere, they also may be the best way to keep congestion at manageable levels.
Steve Sawyer questions whether that will mbe enough. “We really need MaineDOT to come up with a plan to address our infrastructure need," he said. “They know we have a problem, and we are anxious to work with them on a plan.”
While he and other private sector business leaders appreciate the legislature’s passage of framework legislation to improve the funding situation, a corresponding lack of money in the state budget means little change overall. “Nothing’s going to happen without a lot of leadership, at all levels,” he said. He looks to involvement by the business community as a whole, including companies that depend on transportation to get their goods and services to market, as crucial to gaining adequate funding. While transportation budgets, federal and state, may remain austere for some time, the prospect of worsening congestion in communities around Maine may be the spur needed for change.
“We’ll have to be creative, no doubt,” Sawyer said. “Maine could be doing better at using development impact fees to leverage more private dollars, for instance. But we won’t get far until we overcome our reluctance to face up to the problem.”