Gridlocked in Wiscasset

Wiscasset Traffic
Photograph by Michele Stapleton

Will the state’s latest plan for the midcoast hamlet solve a traffic nightmare or ruin a town?

By Edgar Allen Beem
This April, a couple of months before the long lines of cars and trucks started settling in for Wiscasset’s annual and perpetual summer traffic jam, the people of “The Prettiest Village in Maine” were at each other’s throats. At issue: whether to back the Maine Department of Transportation’s latest attempt to alleviate summer gridlock, a somewhat counterintuitive proposal to speed traffic flow by putting up traffic lights, narrowing the roadway, and eliminating on-street parking. The battle for the town’s Route 1 Main Street played out on front lawns, in storefront windows, on editorial pages, and, naturally, on Facebook, where the pro-DOT Wiscasset Thinks Forward group and the anti-DOT Citizens for Sensible Solutions group furiously churned out memes, links, testimonials, and other feed-friendly propaganda in the lead-up to a mid-April vote on whether the town should move forward with a lawsuit challenging the DOT overhaul.

The main sticking points for the opposition, according to Bill Sutter, a leader of Citizens for Sensible Solutions and a retired DOT employee, were the removal of Main Street’s parking spaces and the demolition of an old car dealership, purchased via eminent domain, to build a parking lot in the town’s historic district. But for residents like Judy Flanagan, a former town selectman and a founder of Wiscasset Thinks Forward, the DOT’s project seems like an overdue move towards a safer, more attractive, more pedestrian-friendly downtown — and one that will attract increased business besides. “A street of dreams,” Flanagan calls it. “Build it, and they will come.”

Planners and bureaucrats have puzzled over Wiscasset since at least 1958, when the state first floated an alternative route around downtown (a plan then shelved on account of its cost). The village is a case study in the pitfalls of having a highway for a Main Street, with all of Route 1’s summer tourist traffic funneled through before reaching (northbound) or after crossing (southbound) the Davey Bridge across the Sheepscot River. DOT officials estimate that in July and August, 17,000 to 22,000 vehicles pass through Wiscasset daily, even as thousands of pedestrians try to cross the town’s wide main drag. On its worst days, the resulting jam can stretch 2 to 3 miles in either direction, adding as much as 30 minutes to a trip.

Blame Boothbay? Sutter does, claiming a 60 percent drop-off in the average daily traffic between Wiscasset and Damariscotta, 10 miles north and on the other side of the Boothbay turnoff (the DOT says its closer to 30 percent). Blame Red’s Eats? Plenty of others do, noting the 1,700 or so daily pedestrian crossings at the intersection that hosts Wiscasset’s iconic lobster shack. Still others point out that traffic issues existed for decades before Red’s served its first lobster roll. Nonetheless, relocating Red’s is among many measures that the DOT has at one point considered and rejected, along with building a pedestrian bridge, a tunnel, and, most contentiously, a bypass.

Locals joke that opponents put the eagle nest there — or that DOT operatives built it themselves to avoid footing the substantial bill.

State officials spent the better part of a decade studying that last option — and consulting with various stakeholders — before asking the Army Corps of Engineers to determine a minimally environmentally damaging bypass route in early 2010. The Corps came back with a route north of the village that would have required a new bridge and displaced 26 homes and 14 businesses. The bypass faced its own opposition, and the DOT wasn’t thrilled with the selected route’s $115 million price tag — but hey, most parties seemed to agree, at least it was progress.

Then, in summer 2010, with work on a bypass barely begun, DOT staffers discovered a federally protected eagle nest along the route. Locals joke that opponents put it there — or that DOT operatives built it themselves to avoid footing the substantial bill. Within months, anyway, the bypass project was formally abandoned.

So the state reengaged town officials to determine a non-bypass alternative, and those discussions led to a nonbinding referendum in June 2016, with Wiscasset voters choosing from among three options: 1) install two traffic lights, narrow the roadway by more than half, widen sidewalks, and add pedestrian bump-outs, 2) do all of that, plus eliminate on-street parking in favor of adding surface lots nearby, and 3) do nothing at all. Option 2 won the day, and the town’s selectmen subsequently endorsed the $5 million plan. For a minute there, it looked like everyone had piled into the same Subaru and was cruising towards a solution.

Well, almost everyone. A vocal contingent of downtown business owners — the core of Citizens for Sensible Solutions — feared the loss of downtown parking would cost them customers. Then, early last year, the plan started alienating supporters after the DOT opted not to seek millions in federal aid the agency had said would help fund the project. That meant the state wouldn’t have to abide by federal historic-preservation protocols, a prospect that rankled locals like Sutter, who worries about traffic lights, bollards, and other modern landscaping obscuring the 19th-century mercantile facades.

Last April, DOT invoked eminent domain to purchase a 100-year-old office building a block off Main Street, a one-time car dealership known as the Haggett Garage, intending to raze it for a parking lot. The agency also nixed plans to add additional parking at another site, while a draft surfaced of a DOT report that seemed to show the agency having made edits to imply a rosier outcome for a similar street-parking removal scheme in Orono. Alarmed, Wiscasset voters went back to the polls and passed another referendum last June, this one condemning changes to the plan.

Conceptual renderings of the Department of Transportation’s “Option 2,” which Wiscasset voters approved in June 2016. After some further tussling, construction began this summer.

Then, Governor Paul LePage weighed in. In an email to a frustrated Haggett Garage tenant (who shared the response with media), LePage complained that it takes twice as long in summer to get from Augusta to Boothbay, where he owned a summer home (until recently).

“This is now become [sic] a major state issue, not a local issue,” LePage wrote. “We are moving forward because we are convinced Wiscasset has no interest in working with the state to resolve this drastic issue. Next step is doing what was done in Bath — we go over the downtown and bypass Wiscasset altogether.”

“After 65 years of trying to work with Wiscasset,” he wrote in a follow-up note, “the time has come to move on.”

The governor stayed involved after Wiscasset selectmen voted to sue the DOT over the changes to the project. Earlier this year, lawyers for both sides worked out a provisional agreement in which the DOT consented to comply with the town’s historic-preservation ordinance and preserve a few on-street parking spaces. But according to one attorney involved in the suit, when agency officials ran the agreement by the governor, LePage personally forbid any retention of street parking.

In the end, LePage’s influence was moot. In April, Wiscasset voters showed up for yet another referendum, this time voted decisively against continuing the town’s lawsuit. The DOT immediately opened bidding on the project, then announced that construction would begin after Memorial Day. Within days of the vote, Flanagan’s group changed its name from Wiscasset Thinks Forward to Wiscasset Moves Forward.

The storefront signs disappeared downtown after the April vote, but resentment lingers and some questions remain unanswered. Chief among them: will the project now under way actually do much of anything to improve traffic flow?

According to DOT spokesman Ted Talbot, the project is predicted to reduce traffic backups by 55 to 58 percent during peak traffic periods. “That’s a reduction of queue lengths by over a mile at peak times,” he says, “The throughput at peak times is expected to increase by between 250 and 300 cars per hour.”

“They’re just changing a 3-mile backup to a 2-mile backup,” Sutter says. Those additional cars, he points out, represent just a 12 to 14 percent improvement over current rates. And for all its divisiveness, the elimination of on-street parking spaces, according to the DOT’s own numbers, accounts for no more than 4 of those percentage points.

Some frustrated Citizens for Sensible Solutions (the group intends to press on) are now murmuring about another solution: a bypass, ironically enough, particularly one south of the village that would make use of an existing bridge to Westport Island.

“It makes the most sense for traffic reduction,” argues James Kochan, a Main Street antiques dealer who led the merchant opposition to the DOT plan. Most of his fellow downtown merchants, he says, understand that a bypass won’t hurt business, freeing up Route 1 for those who want to get to Wiscasset and beyond while allowing Boothbay-bound traffic to avoid downtown.

It’s a nice idea, Talbot agrees, but any bypass comes with the same pitfalls that sunk the last one — wherever you locate it, building and improving roads and bridges is expensive and tough to square with private property and environmental protections.

For his part, Sutter thinks the project’s supporters have been hoodwinked by promises of “free stuff — new sidewalks, traffic lights, and parking lots.” And, in a sense, supporters cop to this. Among other things, Wiscasset’s widened sidewalks will host new trees, benches, and lampposts, plus bollards to prevent jaywalking and new bike racks.

“I really believe that with the lawsuit off the table, the DOT will do right by Wiscasset,” says Flanagan, “even though we haven’t been very pleasant to them.”

Kochan takes a different view.

“I predict this project will take 2½ years to complete,” he says, “and over the course of those years, most businesses downtown will close, and when it is done it won’t work — we’ll have even more of a backup than we have now.”

The project’s target completion date is October 2019. Until then, expect the usual levels of impasse. Or worse.