Recent headlines over a strategically thinking Bald Eagle in Wiscasset brought a wry smile to my face because this bird somehow managed to undo what dozens of fiscally prudent Mainers have been unable to do for the last decade: stop the DOT.
It is only with a modicum of irony that it took the American Bald Eagle, our symbol of freedom, to loosen the shackles of an oppressive, fiscally irresponsible DOT plan to build the Wiscasset Bypass. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Wiscasset’s seasonal traffic congestion, let me paint the scene: let’s say you are “from away” and traveling to Midcoast Maine. You are heading north on I-295 and you see a sign that says “Coastal Route”, doesn’t that sound charming? “Let’s take that route!” exclaim the passengers in your car, and so you dutifully exit. You are cruising along, everything is fine, and you soon approach the town of Wiscasset that declares itself to be “The Prettiest Little Village in Maine.” Lovely! You make a few winding turns, catch a glimpse of the water through some Victorian homes, your expectations soar and then suddenly you find yourself in a bit of traffic. Maybe there was a fender bender, no one is moving. You inch forward after a few minutes. 17 minutes and 43 seconds go by. Still stuck. You move agonizingly slow through this “Pretty Little Village” that seems uglier by the minute because all you can see is a line of brake lights a mile long. You make one last turn and then the full scope of the traffic is revealed, and it is a brutal scene. Idling cars are backed up for miles, for no apparent reason other than a bunch of flip-flop clad pedestrians scrambling to cross the road back and forth a zillion times so they can taste for themselves if the lobster rolls at Red’s Eats really are the best in Maine. It is well known that the summer tourists queuing up for a lobster roll at this well-known eatery, located practically on Route 1 itself, is a significant contributor of the infamous start-and-go pile-ups along Route 1. By the time you make it through this, everyone in the car is fighting, you have no idea why you thought a vacation to Maine would in any way constitute an “escape”, you are cranky, hungry (because there was no way you were going to contribute to the problem by actually eating at Red’s Eats), and you openly wonder why they don’t just build a pedestrian bridge for crying out loud!?
The truth is, it is a valid question. A pedestrian bridge or tunnel to alleviate the bottleneck at Red’s Eats is such an obvious solution that you really do have to wonder why it doesn’t already exist. Yes, there are some historical compatibility issues, but it is relatively inexpensive and logical solution. Yet it was summarily dismissed by the DOT. So what about the installation of traffic lights at both the intersection of Route 1 and 27? How about the prohibition of left hand turns in the downtown area? What about a reconfiguration of parking along Route 1?
Source: Maine DOT
Which of these solutions did the experts agree was a reasonable approach? None of the above. Rather, after a decades-long planning process, the alternatives flirted with three bypass options, N8C, N2F and N2A, noted in the diagram above. All three are wildly expensive, in the $85-$100 million dollar range, (this in a state that lacks funds for even basic road maintenance), all have impacts on environmentally sensitive lands, and all, even the shortest option, double the route. This will waste travel time, cost drivers more money and burn more dirty fossil fuels. The negative impacts don’t stop there. The existing Davey bridge will cease to become a priority and when limited state coffers must choose on repairs, it will be the sacrificial lamb, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars. In addition, let’s think about what the by-pass is actually “by-passing.” It’s the entire commercial center of Wiscasset. The charming antique shops: by-passed. The funky art galleries: by-passed. The gift shops, well, you get the idea. All seasonal traffic will be diverted away from the hard working Mainers that rely on tourists for their yearly revenue.
In the wake of the eagle nest discovery, the DOT has indicated that it is “evaluating whether to resubmit an application to support one of remaining alternatives as the preferred option for a bypass.” But perhaps the evaluation should take a step even further and not start with the assumption that a bypass to alleviate seasonal summer traffic is the only option. Let’s go back to the drawing board on this one and come up with a solution that reflects our fiscal reality and that can actually be built in under a decade. The Wiscasset Task Force will meet on December 15 at 6:30 to drill down into these issues and hopefully come up with a sound solution.