SKOWHEGAN — Nobody likes all the traffic in Skowhegan. And judging by this week’s meeting of the Board of Selectmen, it appears that nobody likes any of the proposed solutions, either.
A packed selectmen’s meeting Tuesday night morphed into an impromptu public hearing on the issue of two streets that are to become one-way streets effective Monday. Selectmen voted to proceed with the plan to unveil 13 “one way” and “do not enter” signs near the corners of Gem and Cowette streets, which have become shortcuts for motorists to get to North Avenue and Madison Avenue. The board also agreed not to schedule a formal public hearing on the matter for May 9, which had been part of the earlier plan, because that would give the appearance of permanency to the plan, the town manager said Wednesday.
As of Monday — the Patriot’s Day holiday — Gem Street and Cowette Street will be one-way going east from Madison Avenue — where they meet Greenwood Avenue and Cleveland Street, next to the Belmont Motel and across from a Hannaford supermarket — to North Avenue. Speeding and high traffic volume have prompted complaints from residents in the neighborhood, so town officials decided it was time to take action. One young couple Tuesday night said they have six children who can’t even ride their bicycles in front of their house because of the traffic and the speeding.
The area that includes West Street, Locust Street and Wilson Street, all of which are in a residential subdivision and not meant to be a shortcut across town.
On Wednesday, Road Commissioner Greg Dore said new magnetic traffic “loops” were being installed underground to detect automobiles — one at the intersection of Madison Avenue and Jewett Street, where much of the traffic is expected to go when Gem and Cowette streets are changed to one-way; and on Madison Avenue near McDonald’s. Traffic lights at those two intersections have not worked properly for months, and fixing them could ease the congestion.
Dore said his department did a traffic count and found that 11,449 cars and light trucks used Gem Street in both directions over the course of one week to get to one side of town to the other. He said 34 percent of those drivers were exceeding the speed limit. About 5,500 cars were counted on Cowette Street that week.
Several residents spoke at Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting, complaining about the two-way traffic on Gem and Cowette streets, but also to say making them one-way would just shift the problem to other streets in the area. An estimated 20,000 cars and trucks per week will have to use Jewett Street to connect from North Avenue to Madison Avenue, either coming south from Cornville and Athens, or north from the downtown business district.
Other complaints included the fact that residents of the area were not notified in advance of the road changes and that diverting traffic to Jewett Street, where North Elementary School is, could cause safety problems.
Some said speeding traffic is a police enforcement issue all over town, not just on the side streets. Others asked what Skowhegan traffic would look like when the state fair comes to town in August. Other ideas included making just one of the two streets one-way and installing more stop signs.
The problems are there, all agreed, but the solutions are elusive.
“I would argue that this is not so much a speed issue on either one of these roads, although there were people speeding. They are on every road,” board Chairman Donald Skillings told the assembly Tuesday night. “This is a volume issue; this is a lot of cars for the style of road that’s designed there.”
Skillings said the one-way streets and “do not enter” signs will be up for a trial period, with Dore returning to the board May 9 with an update on how the idea is working after a month of having the changes in place.
“There was not a final decision made. There still isn’t a final decision made,” he said.
Options discussed include speed bumps, which Dore said would be a nightmare during snow plowing season. Another option that could work, Dore said, would be speed tables — traffic calming devices that raise the entire wheelbase of a vehicle to reduce traffic speed. Speed tables are longer than speed bumps and are flat-topped, making it easier to plow snow.
Others present Tuesday night said they feared the new plan would turn Greenwood Avenue into the new shortcut, or push “the cluster” of traffic farther down Madison Avenue and North Avenue to other side streets.
Motorists ignore the stop signs on Greenwood Avenue, resident Carol Ware noted.
“It’s a time bomb,” Ware said. “I think part of any changes or any considerations that’s given needs to find a way to reduce the speed in both directions on Greenwood Avenue.”
“I don’t know the answers,” Skillings said, noting that his own insurance business at the corner of Jewett Street and Madison Avenue could be hurt by increased traffic at the lights there. “This was an opportunity to discuss options.”
Carol Pike, who owns and operates Cam’s Nails on Gem Street, said earlier this month that she doesn’t want the streets to become one-way. She said the change only will make the problem worse than it is now and possibly hurt her business.
She said if her street is one-way, it will make drivers go even faster, not having to worry about traffic coming from the other direction. She said a better solution would be speed limit signs and even cameras to catch speeders and give them a ticket.
“It will make them go faster — make the problem worse,” she said of the one-way signs. “It doesn’t solve the problem. This street, there’s no sidewalks for the kids.”
Dore said his crew will begin installing electronic signs on Madison Avenue and North Avenue alerting motorists to the coming road changes. He said he will have a better assessment of how the changes are working when selectmen meet on May 9.
“I don’t believe there is any one solution. It’s going to be multitude of things,” he said. “We’ll have a lot more information on what’s working and what’s not working.”
He said compounding the problem are school bus routes, access for oil delivery trucks and residents who want to visit two or three houses away and find that they have to loop around to other streets to get there.
Doug Harlow — 612-2367