HALLOWELL — The reconstruction of Water Street might come with an improved link between northern and southern stretches of the Kennebec River Rail Trail.
In December, city councilors decided to limit the road project, which couldn’t happen until 2016 when state funding becomes available, to the portion of the main street between Temple and Winthrop streets.
Last week, however, the council’s Highway Committee decided to expand that to an area north of Winthrop Street to the city’s snow dump, near the entrance to the Rail Trail leading toward Augusta. To get the link, officials will have to choose full reconstruction — the biggest, costliest and longest road rebuilding option — which would result in a new road and sidewalks through downtown, while also allowing replacement of utilities.
That still worries some downtown business owners, who anticipate a project that could paralyze the downtown for half a year. But it’s what the committee says will best fix the road, which is crowned in the middle and sloped on the river side, with antiquated water and sewer lines beneath it.
Last week, the Maine Department of Transportation said that option would cost $3.1 million and take between five and six months.
Most of that would be financed by the state and federal governments, but local add-ons such as new streetlights and sidewalk extensions would be paid for by the city. That estimate doesn’t take the link to the Rail Trail into account, and Nathan Howard, a planner for the Maine Department of Transportation, said he doesn’t know how much more that would cost.
Alan Stearns, the Highway Committee’s chairman, said at the meeting last week, the committee asked whether “we would kick ourselves” if it didn’t advocate for the bigger rebuilding project, including a sidewalk extension and new streetlights.
“We said we would kick ourselves,” Stearns said.
Most of the 6.5-mile Rail Trail between Augusta and Gardiner now runs along a railroad bed; but in Hallowell, the tracks cut west while the trail continues toward the river. Just north of Greenville Street, northbound walkers come off the trail onto Water Street. Southbound travelers leave the trail near the railroad bridge just north of Winthrop Street.
So people headed north toward Augusta must rely on sidewalks and bicycle lanes to get much of the way through Hallowell to the capital city. But there’s no sidewalk leading between the Augusta-side trail entrance and the downtown bandstand, forcing many people to walk on a gravel shoulder.
Stearns said it isn’t known how the project could connect with northern trail segment, but it could be a sidewalk extension or paved area.
The lack of connection is just one problem the trail has in Hallowell, said David Auclair, owner of Auclair Cycle in Augusta and vice president of the Friends of the Kennebec River Rail Trail, a group that raises money for the trail.
He said experienced cyclists have no problem navigating downtown Hallowell, but families biking with children do, with younger bikers often forced onto sidewalks to avoid traffic. A sidewalk extension won’t do much to help them, but he said “anything that’s done to help the status of walkers and cyclists will improve traffic” on the trail.
Ruth Lachance, owner of Boynton’s Market on Water Street, cautions that adding time to the project, be it weeks or months, could deal a death blow to some downtown businesses, including hers. She’s urging the city to limit the project’s time frame.
Public sessions on the project are expected to be announced soon.
The committee has other options, including simply paving the road, which the transportation department says probably would cost $230,000 and take only two to three weeks without the opportunity to fix the crown and do utility and sidewalk work. Another option would be to replace the road without doing sidewalk work, which probably would cost $2.1 million and take more than four months.
Lachance said that one day last year when Summit Natural Gas of Maine shut one lane of Water Street for work, she lost 48 percent of her usual business, something her store couldn’t weather for weeks or months while paying rent, utilities and other business costs.
“I’m scared. We’re scared,” she said. “Everybody’s scared that this will have a huge impact on the downtown.”