April 2, 2013

State won't foot bill on downtown Augusta two-way traffic study

Downtown Alliance believes two-way traffic would boost business

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Lawmakers said Tuesday that the state cannot afford to pay for a study of Water Street in the downtown area, putting on hold any plans to investigate whether merchants would do better with two-way, rather than one-way, traffic.

click image to enlarge

Water Street traffic is currently one way to the north, as this photo taken on Tuesday in downtown Augusta, shows.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Water Street traffic is currently one way to the north, as this photo taken on Tuesday in downtown Augusta shows.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, sponsored L.D. 764 in hopes of requiring the state Department of Transportation to study if Water Street should be converted from one-way to two-way traffic. But the $50,000 price tag prompted the department to oppose the bill, and the Legislature's Transportation Committee followed suit in a unanimous vote Tuesday.

Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, said there's not enough money in the state Highway Fund to pay for the study.

"Maybe Augusta and DOT can work together," he said.

Rep. Ann Peoples, D-Westbrook, encouraged Wilson to look into whether Community Development Block Grants could be used to help cover the cost. The grants are federal funds, administered by the state, that are typically awarded to cities and towns for housing, economic development and downtown revitalization.

"This is an economic development issue as much as it is a traffic issue," she said.

Nina Fisher, an official with the transportation department, said the department will do traffic counts — estimated to cost $18,000 — for the city that could be part of a study. The department would pay the full cost of the counts, she said.

"Maine DOT views this as a local initiative with numerous local concerns," she said in written testimony provided to the committee. "We do not have any transportation system concerns that we feel need to be corrected in this location."

Wilson submitted the bill in conjunction with the Augusta Downtown Alliance. Alliance president Larry Fleury said last month that he and others in the downtown believe that two-way traffic will mean more money for local businesses. On Tuesday, he said the alliance will discuss whether it wants to pursue a study.

"The more we talked about it, the more we found some people didn't want the street changed," Fleury said. "We just want to make sure we're doing the right thing."

Some local shop owners said they are concerned about the loss of parking in the downtown if the street is changed to accommodate two-way traffic. Wilson said he sees the study as the continuation of attempts to revitalize the downtown.

Dale Hatch, owner of Augusta Vacuum, said changing the traffic pattern is an idea that's been debated since the 1960s, but no change has been made.

City Manager William Bridgeo said the alliance has not come to the city with a request for funds, which would be the first step to getting the Augusta City Council to consider whether it would want to pay for the study. Bridgeo has proposed a $52.4 million city budget, which does not include all the funds requested by the school department.

Across the country, cities have converted one-way to two-way streets to help their downtown areas. Dallas, Denver, Sacramento and Tampa have all made the switch, as has Vancouver in Washington state.

Wilson asked Maine lawmakers Tuesday to give him something in writing from the transportation department that shows they will complete a traffic count.

"If I can have something more than a handshake, I can lobby my municipality more," he said.

Fisher said the department will follow through with its end of the bargain.

"We will do these traffic counts this year," she said.

Susan Cover — 621-5643

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