HALLOWELL — A big box truck parked in front of Harlow Gallery last week.
Because of the way the east side of Water Street slopes down sharply, the top of the truck leaned so far over the sidewalk that it knocked an American flag off a lamppost, along with the bracket that held it.
Deb Fahy, the gallery’s executive director, held onto the flag and bracket until they could go back up.
After incidents like that — and years of seeing people struggle to get in and out of vehicles parked on the east side of Water Street — Fahy hopes the road will finally be overhauled.
“I know it’ll be tough on businesses, but it needs to be done,” Fahy said.
Hallowell and the Maine Department of Transportation are close to signing an agreement for a $150,000 feasibility study of solutions to safety, parking and drainage problems on the street.
The city would pay $30,000 for the study, and the transportation department would pay the rest with state and federal money.
The City Council has authorized City Manager Michael Starn to sign the agreement once state transportation officials identify the money available for its portion of the study.
State transportation planner Nate Howard said Commissioner David Bernhardt has signed off, and state funding is in place. Howard expects to receive approval soon for federal funding that also will go toward the study.
The study process will take about a year and look at options for the scope of reconstruction, scheduling the work and sharing costs between Hallowell and the state.
Starn said a city resident who used to work at the transportation department said it has been a century since Water Street was rebuilt. Since then, superficial fixes have added more layers of asphalt and built up a crown in the center of the road that is causing many of the problems.
Howard said the resident’s account is plausible. State records show no major work on Water Street in the last 20 years, but the department did a light paving job in the mid-1990s.
The sloping on the east side causes vehicle doors to scrape against the sidewalk, and any accumulation of snow can prevent doors from opening at all. Winter slush is often ankle-deep in the gutter. People who have mobility problems may have even more difficulty getting into or out of vehicles.
The study also will assess the condition of the road base, stormwater pipes and other infrastructure, because no one knows much about what’s below the street, Howard said.
A feasibility study is especially important in Hallowell’s situation because of several factors that make its section of U.S. Route 201 unique from other state highways, said Martin Rooney, transportation planning division director.
“I’ve driven almost every road of the state of Maine, and the age of the buildings next to a road that carries significant volumes of traffic, the parking issue, where one side of the road is several feet below the other side of the road — I have not seen that anywhere in the state of Maine,” Rooney said.
The traffic pattern on other roads allows work to be done in the spring or fall, or at night, but timing could be more difficult for Water Street because the flow of traffic is not limited to rush hour or vacation season, Rooney said.
Starn said one important point of discussion for planners, residents and businesses will be whether it’s better to work on one section of the road at a time or try to get it all done as quickly as possible.
He noted that there were many complaints about disruptions because of work on U.S. 201 in Farmingdale and Augusta last year and earlier this summer.
“That is why there is a lot of concern about having ample public input throughout the feasibility study,” Starn said. “Everybody who wants to be involved and is going to be affected by this project needs to be given the opportunity to voice their concerns and provide ideas and all of that.”
Fahy said a reconstruction project must be well-organized.
“It should go ahead, but it should be a really efficient process so that they have a clear window for when it’s going to happen, and they should stick to that,” she said.
Fahy said the city and the Hallowell Area Board of Trade will need to do everything they can to ease the burden on businesses, including promoting them during construction and informing people of alternative parking options.
Starn said fixing Water Street would benefit Hallowell and the region both short-term and long-term.
“It provides a public works project and it creates a better, safer downtown for allowing economic activity to flourish,” he said.
The feasibility study is no guarantee that reconstruction will ever occur. Rooney said the state and city need to find a plan that is practical, affordable and permissible under government regulations.
It would have been several years before the project received any consideration had Hallowell not agreed to pay part of the cost for the feasibility study. Rooney said the transportation department has several years worth of unfunded projects in various stages of design.
Susan McMillan — 621-5645