The Portland Press Herald

The commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation has called off all plans to build a bypass around Wiscasset, where potential solutions for summer traffic congestion have been studied for more than 50 years.

The Department of Transportation last year settled on its most concrete plan for a corridor around the town’s historic village, but the project has been in limbo since an American bald eagle’s nest was found near the proposed route last summer.

Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said Monday that his decision to end the study had little to do with the discovery of the bird’s nest and everything to do with the estimated $100 million price tag on the project.

Although he vowed to continue to work with the town to improve traffic flow through the U.S. Route 1 bottleneck — home to destination lobster shack Red’s Eats — the collapse of the latest plan has some wondering whether Wiscasset’s traffic problems will ever be resolved.

“I feel personally very strongly that the bypass is the only effective way to preserve mobility and preserve the historic village,” said Donald Jones, chairman of the Wiscasset Transportation Committee. “We’ll have to see what happens … We’re all wondering.”

Mark Latti, spokesman for the transportation department, said the traffic problem in the village exists for six to eight weeks per year and causes delays of up to 17 minutes.

“Due to the excessive cost and limited benefits, the only sensible choice was to cancel the plans to build a bypass,” Bernhardt said.

Bernhardt, a 26-year veteran of the Department of Transportation, was chosen to become commissioner by Gov. Paul LePage in January. Before being confirmed by the Legislature, he told the Transportation Committee he would oppose any new bonding initiatives.

This is the second transportation planning effort in the midcoast region to be thwarted by the new administration. In March, Bernhardt announced that the state had suspended funding for the Gateway 1 project, which had already spent $2.4 million on its long-term strategic plan for 110 miles of U.S. Route 1, from Brunswick to Prospect.

Bernhardt said Monday the state has spent $2.5 million during the past 10 years on studies of the Wiscasset bypass project. Recently, transportation officials had been considering alternate routes for the bypass that wouldn’t come within the required 660-foot buffer between the eagle’s nest and new development.

“The more you look at something, you’ll continue to spend more,” Bernhardt said.

Another reason to end the study, he said, was to give closure to the dozens of homeowners who would have been displaced by the project and were waiting for a final word before trying to sell or build on their property.

“At some point you have to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Bernhardt said. “These residents … can now get on with their life.”

That’s the good news, said Laurie Smith, Wiscasset’s town manager.

“The bad news is this doesn’t solve the issue,” she said.