WEST GARDINER — The first public meeting about a proposed roundabout on Route 126 drew around 40 residents from the surrounding communities Thursday night to voice concerns about the idea and to tell state officials to act sooner rather than later to remedy the dangerous intersection.
The Maine Department of Transportation and the Maine Turnpike Authority are proposing to build the roundabout at the intersection of Route 126, the turnpike service plaza and the Interstate 95 northbound exit and southbound entrance.
Paula Gravelle, who lives near the intersection in West Gardiner, said she’s scared to cross through it.
“I almost get hit every day. I almost hit others every day. Something needs to be done,” she said at the meeting at Helen Thompson School.
The intersection is considered one of the most dangerous in the state because it has the highest critical rate factor, which takes into account the number of crashes and amount of traffic in a location, than anywhere else in Maine.
A large portion, 90 percent, of the funding for the $1.4 million project will come from federal highway safety funds. The other 10 percent will be picked up by the turnpike authority.
Some at Thursday’s meeting, however, said they think the authority should pay for whatever to takes to fix the intersection because the number of crashes spiked after the service plaza was built directly across from the turnpike entrance and exit in 2008.
The number of crashes jumped from two in the four years before the service plaza was installed to 34 in the four years after, according to the department.
Tim Marks, a state representative from Pittston and a retired state trooper, said he patrolled that area for more than a decade until three years ago, and he said alerted the turnpike authority years ago that the intersection was dangerous.
“What took you so long? We knew this was a problem the first year,” he said.
Marks said he supports building a roundabout because roundabouts seem to be safer, in his experience.
Merton Hickey, a West Gardiner selectman, said most people in town opposed the building of the plaza and opposed it being connected directly to Route 126, also known as Route 9 and Lewiston Road.
“They built the pyramids and the Great Wall of China. It seems like they could have made an exit right to the plaza,” Hickey said.
Instead of spending public money on a roundabout, Hickey said, the state should have the turnpike authority to fix the problem.
Gravelle, who lives near the intersection, also said she supports the roundabout and thinks people should accept that the service plaza isn’t changing.
“We can change. We can get used to it,” she said. “I live there right next door. I go through it all the time. It’s going to help.”
Some attendees — including Debbie Peacock, who said she drives a school bus for Regional School Unit 11 — suggested a traffic light instead of a roundabout.
“We’re not a big city, and I think that (is) what this is more toward,” she said.
Jonathan French, a civil engineer for the department, said traffic signals can be more dangerous than roundabouts because people can go through the intersection without slowing down.
“No one’s going to be able to go straight across. That’s why the roundabout is designed like it is,” he said. “It’s physically designed to slow traffic traffic down, to make it safe.”
Roundabouts reduce fatalities up to 90 percent and injury crashes by 76 percent, according to the department.
Many attendees at the meeting said they would like to see the state do something in the interim to make the intersection safer, such as lowering the speed limit, because the state is proposing to build the roundabout in 2015.
Paul MacDonald, the project manager for the department, said it’s possible for the department to look into some temporary fix, such as signs with blinking lights, to make the intersection safer.
He said a municipality has to request speed study, and he can work with West Gardiner to do so.
One man suggested adding a sign on the I-95 northbound exit that tells drivers they have to stop before crossing Route 126 for the service plaza.
“You’ve got to cross West Gardiner’s lifeblood before you make it to the toilet,” he suggested for the wording.
Some attendees said they were concerned about pedestrians and bicyclists navigating the roundabout because the department officials said there wasn’t any designed lanes for them.
Sharon Treat, a state representative from Hallowell who represents West Gardiner, urged the officials to not make the roundabout difficult to use for pedestrians and cyclists and to treat it like part of the community.
MacDonald said after that meeting that he would take the information and feedback gathered and bring it back to the department and the turnpike authority, which had two representatives at the meeting.
“I don’t have the authority to say, âYup, we’re definitely going to do that,'” MacDonald told attendees. “I have the authority to take back everything you’re telling me.”