WATERVILLE — Public safety officials worry that another hours-long traffic jam at Waterville Commons like the one Saturday could pose serious problems in an emergency.
Fire Chief David LaFountain said Tuesday that if there were a fire at Home Depot, Walmart or another business off the road while it was jammed with traffic, emergency workers would have trouble reaching the scene. The complex has one road in and out — Waterville Commons Drive — which opens onto Main Street just south of Interstate 95 exit 130.
Several city officials said Tuesday that original plans for the shopping complex included an eventual second access road, either to Main Street, another nearby road or adjacent Elm Plaza, but that never happened.
LaFountain said that Home Depot and Walmart both have sprinklers, but other businesses at the complex don’t.
He said fire isn’t the only problem. “I would think a more common event would be a health issue. We’d have to find a way to get in. We’d probably have to go in on foot.”
Waterville Commons Drive was being prepared for repaving last week when heavy rain, the road’s poor condition and heavy weekend shopping traffic caused a massive traffic jam Saturday at the shopping complex.
Gridlocked motorists and frayed tempers escalated to the point that two city police officers were called in on overtime to direct traffic and handle road rage. Incidents during the jam included a fist fight, parts falling off vehicles as they navigated potholes and cars driving where they shouldn’t to avoid damaged parts of the road and other cars.
An executive with Waterville Commons owner, Riverview Management, also known as Waterville Commons Associates LLC, of Akron, Ohio, said Monday that the road will be paved this week and that should take care of the problem.
Pike Industries, of Fairfield, the paving contractor, referred questions to Riverview.
But city officials said this week that paving the road isn’t the only issue; access is too.
Police Chief Joseph Massey said a pregnant woman was one of dozens of callers who complained of being stuck in traffic and unable to get out of the complex Saturday.
LaFountain said he worries there could be a similar situation in the future.
“If there was a problem there, yes, we would have a problem getting there, I think — like everyone else, including Delta (Ambulance),” he said. “That’s the only way in.
“Being gridlocked, we can’t just tell people to move. But it’s not unusual up there. On Mother’s Day weekend it was not as bad as it was Saturday, but I was in the parking lot for hours when a tractor-trailer almost tipped over up there.”
LaFountain said as far as he knows, his department can’t shut Waterville Commons down if it’s a fire danger “unless (city officials) get involved.”
City Manager Michael Roy said there is no permit or license for the city to pull.
“There’s nothing the city can do now to force them to do something different — nothing that I know of,” Roy said. “They’re completely legitimate. I think one of the questions is, did people do their jobs, traffic designing-wise, when they built the road?”
THE COMMONS PROBLEM
Roy said city and state Department of Transportation officials discussed creating two left-turn lanes into Waterville Commons Drive for motorists traveling north on Main Street as a way to alleviate congestion at the intersection of the two roads.
“But that possibility was eliminated because traffic moving through the intersection was not heavy enough from a vehicle count point of view,” Roy said. “It didn’t seem to justify taking out one of the pass-through, straight-through lanes.”
Those familiar with the traffic issue at Waterville Commons say the traffic problems at the site stem from a combination of things — Waterville Commons Drive was not built for heavy traffic, it is the only entrance and exit from a shopping area that is home to large and popular stores and the intersection could use improvement, including traffic light changes.
Public Works Director Mark Turner said when Waterville Commons Drive was built, developers planned to eventually build a second road to and from the complex, but that did not occur.
The road into the shopping complex was built for vehicles such as cars, sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks driven by shoppers, and not big tractor-trailer trucks hauling lumber, bricks and other heavy materials to businesses, according to Turner.
“The weight of these heavy vehicles is way heavier than the road was designed for,” Turner said. “I think in their minds, there was going to be another road built, so they built Waterville Commons Drive for lighter vehicles.”
The Ruby Tuesday, Staples, and Home Depot were built off Waterville Commons Drive in 2002; the Walmart was constructed in 2004; and the strip mall with Starbucks and Cappza’s Pizza was built in 2005, according to the city planning office.
A SECOND ROAD
Turner said the problem would be alleviated by another road into Waterville Commons, which would “be certainly helpful for the flow of traffic in and out of the complex and it would open it up to further development.”
“The added road would be a big, big plus for everybody,” Turner said.
City Planner Ann Beverage said Tuesday that Cedarwood Development, the original owners of Waterville Commons, initially planned that second road to Main Street as part of a second phase of development that would have included more businesses.
But the developer sold some of its land to MaineGeneral Health, which owns Thayer Center for Health off North Street, behind the complex. The second road was never built and the anticipated additional businesses never came.
The Planning Board approved the Waterville Commons development with the understanding that the second road would be built, she said.
“The Planning Board approved it, having been told the second phase would have been built, but it wasn’t a condition of approval,” she said. “There was pressure to approve (Waterville Commons) because they (city officials) wanted the tax dollars.”
Both Beverage and Council Chairman Fred Stubbert, D-Ward 1, said there was discussion about building another road from Waterville Commons that would exit onto Eustis Parkway, but residents of that street were opposed to it. City officials also discussed building a road from Waterville Commons to Quarry Road, which is behind the Commons.
Stubbert said one of the things city officials wanted to see was a road from Waterville Commons to Elm Plaza, an adjacent shopping center off Main Street, which houses Hannaford supermarket and Kmart, among other stores, because a lot of traffic goes between the two, he said.
Stubbert said he thought the owners of Elm Plaza, Bob and Andy Rosenthal, were opposed to the idea, but Bob Rosenthal said in an email Tuesday that that was not the case.
“Andy has always from the inception of the other center tried to get them to join a road between the two for their mutual benefit,” Bob Rosenthal said in the email. “As a matter of fact, last year he brought the potential up but was unable to get the necessary approvals. He has always wanted to have a road joining the two centers and remains so today.”
Stubbert said he believes building a road from Elm Plaza to the Commons would help solve the congestion problem.
“I think that’d be the first thing and the simplest thing to do,” he said.
He said discussions of building another road from Waterville Commons to Main Street went nowhere because of the expense.
“One of the problems there is that nobody wants to spend the money to do it,” he said. “There’s a cost involved that nobody wants to take on. I think that’s part of the problem.”
One entrance to Waterville Commons is not sufficient, Stubbert maintains.
“I don’t think it’s adequate at all,” he said. “The traffic right there in front of Elm Plaza is horrendous — I go through it all the time because I live up there. It’s a mess, especially during the holiday season.”
He added that the intersection at Main Street and Waterville Commons Drive poses a dangerous situation. Main Street is a state-owned road — Route 104 — and the state DOT has jurisdiction over traffic issues there, including the traffic lights. The city has no authority over the traffic lights or intersection, but monitors it, he said.
Turner, the public works director, said widening the entrance to Waterville Commons Drive could help and there were discussions in the past with the owner of Governor’s Restaurant about using land on its site for the improvements.
Turner said he hopes that when the state repaves Main Street in two years, a sidewalk is built from McDonald’s restaurant on Main Street north to Waterville Commons, about half a mile. The sidewalk now ends at McDonald’s and the area needs to be improved for pedestrian and bike traffic, he said.
David Burrows, vice president of asset management for Riverview Management/Waterville Commons Associates LLC, could not be reached for comment Tuesday about whether the company plans to build another access road to the Commons.