AUGUSTA — A bill calling for a study of the feasibility of transforming Water Street in the city’s downtown from a one-way to a two-way street is drawing praise and concern from business owners.
Larry Fleury, president of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, said he’s convinced that businesses will make more money if traffic flows in both directions.
“It’s been proven time and time again that businesses that have two-way traffic do better,” he said. “If you’re from out of town, it really drives people up a wall.”
However, Dale Hatch, owner of Augusta Vacuum, said changing the traffic pattern is an idea that’s been debated since the 1960s.
“You notice it’s still one-way,” said Hatch, who’s had a business on Water Street for 14 years. “I don’t see it would make any difference whatsoever. All it would do is add to the cost of a switchover with very little benefit derived from it.”
Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, is sponsoring the bill, L.D. 764, which would require the state Department of Transportation to study the issue and report back to the Legislature next year. As a member of the Downtown Alliance, Wilson said he thinks the change would boost businesses.
“I believe it will improve access to the downtown merchants,” he said. “We’ve been working hard at continuing to revitalize the downtown. Establishing two-way traffic is a way of continuing that momentum.”
The state DOT has never studied the possibility of converting the road for two-way traffic, said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the department, although it does traffic studies if a municipality requests it.
In recent years, Dallas, Denver, Sacramento and Tampa have converted downtown streets from one-way to two-way, according to theatlanticcities.com. A December 2009 analysis in Governing magazine highlights Vancouver, Wash., which changed its downtown thoroughfare from one-way to two-way in November 2008 after years of spending millions on other revitalization projects, the magazine reported.
Merchants said after the change that twice as many people were going through the downtown, prompting the head of the Vancouver Downtown Association to declare that “one-way streets should not be allowed in prime downtown retail areas,” according to “The Return of the Two-Way Street” by Alan Ehrenhalt.
Here in Maine, downtown Augusta merchants are worried about losing parking if the street is converted to two-way traffic.
“My fear is it’s not quite wide enough,” said Stacy Gervais, owner of Stacy’s Hallmark.
In recent years, there have been other discussions about changing one-way Commercial Street — which runs behind the businesses on the west side — to allow two-way traffic and reducing Water Street to one lane, she said. Traffic now moves too fast through downtown, endangering pedestrians and making it less likely that drivers will stop to shop at the stores and eat at the restaurants, she said.
Also, she said, some people don’t like the parallel parking downtown and would prefer to be able to pull in and back out. Gervais took over the business 15 years ago from her father, who opened the shop in 1973.
“What downtown used to be, it isn’t anymore,” she said. “We were the retail hub 40 years ago. Now what we’re trying to create is smaller, boutique spaces where people spend more time.”
Parking is a big concern for Tom Falk, owner of the Vickery Cafe, which has been in its current location for 10 years.
“If they take out parking, it’s ridiculous for retail,” he said.
Downtown Diner, which moved from Mount Vernon Avenue to downtown in 2011, is one of the more recent new businesses on Water Street. Waitress Joline Fongemie said she’d want to know more about whether a change would affect parking and whether it would include Commercial Street.
As it is now, the staff sees about one vehicle a week head the wrong way on Water Street.
“We want our clients to have parking,” she said. “I wouldn’t be opposed to it, but I’d want to know what they plan to do around the whole thing.”
Fleury said he knows businesses are concerned about parking, and Wilson said his intention is to direct DOT to study the issue to see whether it makes sense. The bill will be heard by the Legislature’s Transportation Committee in the coming weeks.
“This will at least allow us to start the discussion to find out if it’s feasible,” Wilson said.
Susan Cover — 621-5643