Pity the poor ambulance drivers in Skowhegan.

I travel there a few times a week from Waterville and have been stuck in traffic there several times, but a recent Friday afternoon foray took the cake.

It was 1:06 p.m. and vehicles were backed up on Waterville Road, Main Street, West Front Street and Island Avenue for what seemed like miles. Water and Commercial streets downtown were also clogged, with traffic stopping and crawling, stopping and crawling.

Entering the Margaret Chase Smith Bridge on the south channel of the Kennebec River, heading toward downtown, I was in a sea of cars: two packed lanes heading toward the south side of town and one lane — my lane — heading into downtown.

I heard the muffled sound of an ambulance coming and thought, “Oh, God, what now?”

Checking forward and backward, I could not see the ambulance, and hoped it was not trying to get to the hospital on the south side of the river from downtown because I feared it wouldn’t get through the mass of traffic.

Soon, the siren blared louder and I saw flashing lights up ahead.

The ambulance was attempting to wend its way through bumper-to-bumper, stopped traffic, with hardly any place to move.

Vehicles in my lane inched as far to the right as they could without jumping the bridge rails and tumbling into the river by the dam.

Fortunately, my car is small enough that I could squeeze it to the right and let the ambulance creep past.

I looked at the young woman driving the rig, and felt a surge of pity for her.

“Something’s wrong with this picture,” I heard myself say out loud.

While I managed to get into downtown after a few minutes of frustration, I cannot imagine how the ambulance driver fared.

Caught in traffic on a par with that of New York City, she must have been nonplused, especially considering the precious cargo she was carrying.

I couldn’t help but think about the patient in the rear of her ambulance. Was he or she having a heart attack? Suffering life-threatening injuries from an accident?

Little towns aren’t supposed to experience traffic jams like this.

I was raised in Skowhegan, so I know how important tourism is to the town.

Visitors come from all around to vacation, attend festivals or travel north to white water raft, ski and snowmobile. Canadians pass through on their way to the coast and stop in Skowhegan to eat and shop.

It’s the home of the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith and beautiful Coburn Park, The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and the annual 194-year-old Skowhegan State Fair.

It’s great to see people enjoying all that Skowhegan has to offer. But it’s very bad when traffic congestion poses serious problems for fire, police and rescue vehicles.

The town has struggled over the years with what to do about this problem. The state worked on plans to build another bridge across the Kennebec, and possibly a highway bypass, to alleviate the backup.

Meetings were held, ideas tossed around and places identified as possible new bridge or bypass sites.

Many residents opposed the bypass project as it would have cut through their properties and in some cases, taken their homes. Some business people complained that creating a bridge or bypass would kill their livelihood by averting traffic from downtown.

Ultimately, the project lost momentum and the town was back to square one.

Supporters and naysayers both had their valid points. The issue was complicated and the solution anything but simple.

But what isn’t rocket science is that we appear to be in deep doo-doo here.

Sure, traffic isn’t horrific every day and ambulances don’t always get called to action every time the bridge is congested.

But I fear the problem may ultimately be addressed only after someone dies as a result.

One death is one too many. And, for Pete’s sake, let’s give some credit to the poor emergency workers who are trying to prevent it.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 24 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]

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