AUGUSTA — With Maine’s short summer road construction season rumbling up to speed, municipal leaders and road project planners have to pick their poison when it comes to scheduling the often disruptive work.
Road construction by day, or by night?
Work during the day can back up traffic, slow commuters and emergency vehicles, and make it harder for potential customers to get in and out of businesses. It frustrates business owners, and puts construction workers in the middle of the street at the same time as most motorists are hitting the road too.
Construction taking place at night, meanwhile, can draw the ire of nearby residents who can’t sleep because of the beeping, banging and clanging outside their homes. It’s more costly, more likely to result in poor quality and less safe.
Jacob Fongemie, a resident of Eastern Avenue in Augusta, spoke during a recent City Council meeting against authorizing night work.
“We’ve got children in the neighborhood, and hardworking parents who need to get up early in the morning. We all need our sleep,” Fongemie said.
Tamara Blesh, another Eastern Avenue resident, said she has been awakened in recent nights not by work on their road, but by trucks traveling it to get to night work sites elsewhere in the city.
Lesley Jones, Augusta’s public works director, said whether the city allows, or in some cases even directs, contractors to work at night on construction projects is decided on a case-by-case basis.
In more-commercial areas, where there are few residents living along major arterial roads that draw high traffic during the day, it can be advantageous to have work done at night. That’s when there is less traffic and when the work has less effect on businesses open during the day.
But in residential areas, Jones and City Manager William Bridgeo said, the city rarely approves night work, for the obvious reason that it interferes with residents getting a good night’s sleep, and because night work costs more.
“It’s a matter of balancing the needs of the people who live in an area who have to listen to that incessant beeping (of trucks backing up), which would drive me up a wall, versus the needs of citizens going through the corridor,” said Dale McCormick, an at-large city councilor in Augusta, during a recent council debate. “What value is a night’s sleep? What value is peace and quiet in the summer? And how do we balance the needs of businesses?”
Bridgeo said he would authorize night work only if it’s for the benefit of public safety. He’s worried about roads such as Mount Vernon Avenue because “it gets so jammed up no one can get anywhere. That’s a concern.”
Ted Talbot, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said almost the only reason the state allows night construction work by contractors working on state roads is to minimize the effect on traffic. Sometimes in congested, high-traffic areas, construction could back up traffic so badly that it’s better to do it at night, he said. The effect, he noted, can be worse, and more concerning to businesses and officials, in areas popular with tourists.
“In more high-traffic areas, you have to weight what’s best for traffic flow,” Talbot said. “In Maine we have one construction season, which coincides exactly with tourist season. All these things have to be weighed, because of the economic impacts, the travel impacts.”
He cited Camden as a place where night work is likely, but said in rural areas, “it’s almost guaranteed to be a daytime job.”
Talbot said night work is the exception, not the rule, and the state generally favors construction work taking place during the day.
He said that’s because construction work is more expensive at night because of pay differentials for workers and the need to run lights at job sites. During the day, the quality of work is generally better, and the work is safer because there’s more light for workers and their supervisors to see what’s going on.
City councilors in Augusta, after extensive debate two weeks ago, ultimately authorized Bridgeo to allow night work by the quasi-municipal Greater Augusta Utility District. However, the council tabled a proposal to allow night work by Maine Natural Gas and Summit Natural Gas of Maine, which are installing natural gas lines in the city.
Councilors voted to table a decision on that issue until mid-June.
City Councilor Patrick Paradis said some work on natural gas lines last summer took place around the clock, upsetting residents by disrupting their evenings and nights, which he said are important times for people to be able to rest and spend time with family. He said if gas companies have to get approval from city councilors for night work, it at least gives residents a forum — council meetings — at which they can learn about the proposal and express their opinions. He noted that thousands of people live on the city’s major arterial roads, and they’re affected by night work just as much as people living on less-traveled residential streets.
The Greater Augusta Utility District already has had a contractor working at night, just last week on Mount Vernon Avenue, installing new sewer lines.
District Superintendent Brian Tarbuck said the district met with business owners on the road, who made it clear having to shut down one lane of traffic was unacceptable to them during the day. So they did the work at night.
Lou Craig, owner of College Carryout, and Scott O’Brien, owner of Augusta Florist, two businesses on Mount Vernon Avenue, said they were pleased the district agreed to do the work at night, when most of the businesses are closed.
Talbot said the state can and does specify in contracts when road work should take place, during the day or night. He said it’s almost always one or the other, and rarely day and night — except, Talbot noted, in emergencies.
“If we’ve got an emergency situation, where you’ve got a road or bridge that has eroded or something, we’ll work until it’s done,” he said. “We’re going to be there until the emergency is clear. But rare are the projects where we have both day and night.”
Keith Edwards — 621-5647[email protected]Twitter: @kedwardskj