HALLOWELL — A future reconstruction project on Water Street has city business owners worried about closure, as state officials mull alternatives to an outlined plan that could rebuild the road over two construction seasons.

The Maine Department of Transportation probably will meet with members of the City Council’s highway committee in October to offer alternatives to the two-season plan as they work on a feasibility study on the project, which wouldn’t happen until 2016, when funding becomes available.

While the department says it would prefer a shorter time frame and is working on alternatives, Councilor Mark Sullivan referred the project at a council meeting earlier this month by saying he was “steeling himself for a root canal.”

A daily average of 14,390 vehicles travel the stretch of Water Street south of Winthrop Street. North of Winthrop Street, an average of 10,800 pass by daily, according to Ted Talbot, the transportation department’s spokesman.

The main issue with the downtown stretch of the street is an exaggerated crown in the middle. It was built that way in 1935, when a trolley track ran down it and parking wasn’t much of a concern, said Nathan Howard, a planner for the transportation department.

On the Kennebec River side, the street slopes heavily, making it easy to hit the sidewalk when opening a passenger-side car door.

Still, a clear Water Street is fuel for downtown businesses. Owners say they may go under if the road is closed or jammed with one-way traffic for an extended period of time.

“One year would be hugely, hugely difficult,” said Lynn Irish, who owns WhipperSnappers, a downtown fabric shop, and is also running unopposed for a City Council seat. “Two years, I’m sure I couldn’t survive it.”

Last year, the department gave the stretch of road from Temple Street to the Augusta line a “D” grade. From Temple Street south to Maple Street, it got a “B” because of a light paving project done last year with a lifespan of four to six years.

The project could snowball from there, however. If the road is rebuilt, sewer and water officials have expressed interest in replacing antiquated water and sewer lines below, said Michael Starn, Hallowell’s city manager.

“We’ve always understood the water and sewer in the downtown was going to be part of any type of major reconstruction, because you don’t want to be opening up that road again,” Starn said.

Howard said the department “would like to find a solution that gets that time frame down below the two years,” but time frames for specific alternatives aren’t yet available.

Through segmenting the project or giving different treatments to different stretches, it could take less time, he said.

But city officials were alarmed when the department outlined the possible two-year time frame in August. Before that, meeting notes from Councilor Alan Stearns, who chairs the highway committee, said no time frame had been offered that was longer than nine months.

At the August meeting, the department said that direct “downtown impacts might be six months or less,” while total traffic effects between the Augusta and Farmingdale boundary lines would cover two construction seasons, Stearns’ notes said.

“The two-construction-season analysis, I think, was a surprise to everybody, so it’s taken some time to sink in,” Stearns said Monday. “I think the alternatives will make the project more affordable and have less of an impact on businesses.”

Still, Stearns said he thinks Hallowell “will need to invest in a new road” sometime and “it’s a question of when, not whether, we will have to tackle some of the crumbling infrastructure.”

But Starn said businesses closing as a result is the last thing the city wants. If the road is rebuilt, he said, officials would work to accommodate businesses by offering alternative parking options during downtown detours.

Ruth Lachance, co-owner of Boynton’s Market, said her business relies on passers-by.

On days when it rains, the store loses about a fifth of its normal business, she said. Lachance said she wants to see a narrow plan for the road: If the crown is the main issue, she hopes it, and only it, will be addressed.

“If it was shut down for more than three or four weeks,” Lachance said, “we’d probably be out of business.”

Michael Shepherd — 621-5632
[email protected]