AUGUSTA — A heavily traveled section of Mount Vernon Avenue will be one-way only for about three months starting around Memorial Day, so it and a crumbling retaining wall adjacent to it can be reconstructed.

That has businesses owners along the capital city’s northern gateway worried they will see a devastating drop in customers that could last beyond construction if people’s travel habits change and don’t change back.

The road will be one-way northbound heading out of the center of the city toward the Marketplace at Augusta, from the Bond Brook Bridge just north of the Bond and Boothby street intersection, about a half-mile to near a fuel depot and Augusta Florist, according to Ernie Martin, project manager for the state Department of Transportation. The rest of the road will remain open to two-way traffic. Southbound traffic for the one-way portions will be detoured from Civic Center Drive onto Townsend Road, which will bring it to Northern Avenue.

John Babb, owner of J&S Oil, which has a gas station and convenience store on Mount Vernon Avenue just north of the section that will be restricted to one-way-traffic only, said the disruption to business comes on the heels of other construction on the road this past summer, a previous utility project that tore up the area to install new underground pipes and years of the road surface being so rough some motorists shunned the major road for smoother alternatives.

J&S is near, not on, the section that will be one way, but Babb said the impact on business there will be the same as if it were on the one way part. That’s because motorists aren’t likely to travel down Mount Vernon Avenue to buy gas or convenience store items if they’ll have to come back the same way they came, because they can’t get past the one-way-only section.

“For all due purposes it will be one way here too, very few people will make the trip (to his store and gas station) knowing they’ll have to return on the same path,” Babb said. “That’s why they call them convenience stores. It’s not so convenient when it’s one way traffic and the road is all torn up. It is going to be pretty crippling to a number of us.”

Babb suggested the project should be done by allowing traffic to travel in both directions, alternating directions when only one lane is available.

Martin said the work area is too narrow to allow two-way traffic, even alternating, during construction.

The impact of the project could extend well beyond businesses on or near that stretch of road, as traffic is expected to increase on alternate routes.

That includes the largely residential Townsend Road, as motorists seek to find ways around the one-way work site, especially coming to and from the busy Marketplace at Augusta. And those motorists include commuters, school buses, firetrucks and police cars.

“We’re looking at an approximately three month period of having it one way only, that’s going to impact traffic patterns elsewhere,” Martin said. “People are going to take other means of traveling. Driver behavior, where are people going to migrate to, that’s stuff we’ll need to analyze. You do have a lot of commuters there. And you have (ambulances), buses, it impacts the city globally.”

Martin said one change meant to accommodate traffic seeking an alternate route to Mount Vernon Avenue during the three months will be temporarily removing the ban on drivers turning left out of the Marketplace, from Marketplace Drive onto Townsend Road.

When Martin described that part of the state’s plans for the project recently to Augusta city councilors, some of them said that change should be made permanent, and motorists should have never been banned from making a left turn out of the Marketplace onto Townsend in the first place.

Ward 3 Councilor Patrick Paradis said the original reason no left turn was allowed from Marketplace Drive onto Townsend was there was concern it would bring too much traffic to Townsend Road, but he said traffic there has decreased since a new interchange was built at Exit 113 of Interstate 95 because traffic is diverted there instead. So he said turning left from Marketplace Drive onto Townsend should be allowed permanently, not just during the construction project next summer.

“I think with the establishment, a year ago, of exit 113, there is a little bit less traffic on Townsend today,” said Paradis, who lives on Northern Avenue near its intersection with Townsend Road. “People coming to my neighborhood from the Marketplace feel they would be safer if they could turn left onto Townsend, so they can avoid Civic Center Drive.”

Martin said the state will look at traffic data, before and during the construction project on Mount Vernon Avenue, to see if the traffic count could be low enough on Townsend Road to make allowing left turns from Marketplace Drive onto Townsend a permanent change. But he said it is not likely, in part due to concerns about putting too much traffic through the Northern Avenue and Townsend Road intersection.

“It’s anticipated we’re going to put it back when we’re done,” Martin said of the left turn ban at Marketplace Drive. “I’m not optimistic we’ll be able to keep it but we’ll analyze traffic counts and see what the volumes are. I heard those comments (in favor of allowing left turns from Marketplace Drive permanently) and will be looking at all the data to see what it will show us in the end. Those three months will be a good time to take a peek at it.”

Deputy Police Chief Jared Mills confirmed multiple city councilors’ comments that many motorists already turn left, illegally, coming out of the Marketplace. He said when police are able to monitor that intersection, there is always a high number of violations of the left turn ban.

Mills said his biggest concern with the Mount Vernon Avenue reconstruction project is traffic could back up on Townsend Road at the tricky intersection of Townsend Road and Northern Avenue, due to additional traffic taking that route because it can’t get through Mount Vernon Avenue heading south. The intersection is on a corner, and a small but steep hill, with a business entrance next to it, and has tight confines in all directions. Mills and others noted motorists can have a hard time turning left at that intersection, which, in turn, can cause traffic to back up.

Mills said state transportation officials consulted with city public safety officials before deciding the one way section of Mount Vernon Avenue should be in the northerly direction, outbound from the city center, rather than southbound from the Marketplace area.

Mills said which direction traffic is allowed to go through the one way section doesn’t matter much to the police department, as officers are assigned to rove around certain areas of the city anyway. He said northbound is better for the fire department because most of its trucks and ambulances would be responding to emergency situations from stations that are in the inner part of the city, such as their headquarters at Hartford Station. MaineGeneral Medical Center is also north of the city’s fire stations.

“It works best for the fire department because all of their services that deal with north Augusta are in town,” Mills said. “Therefore most calls that require a quick response are from Hartford in town going out. Most often the return trip to Hartford is not an emergency.”

Martin said the state plans to open bids for the work in early May and have a contractor selected and ready to go to work just after Memorial Day.

He said the contractor will likely be allowed to work from 6 a.m. to around 11 p.m., later than might otherwise be allowed elsewhere, to help speed the project along.

The work on the one way section of Mount Vernon Avenue is expected to be complicated by the tight confines there, with a crumbling concrete retaining wall abutted on one side by residences and the other by the street. Work will also take place to try to improve drainage in the area. Residents and officials have said poor drainage likely contributed to the poor condition of the road surface in recent years.

That section is part of a larger project resurfacing the previously very rough Mount Vernon Avenue from Bond Street to the lower entrance of the University of Maine at Augusta.

Martin said work on the upper section, above the one-way lower part, should be relatively quick and easy, a “mill and fill” job requiring crews to only mill down the road surface and replace it with new pavement.

Crews did some of the work this past summer, when the state responded to city officials’ concerns that the road was falling part by putting down a layer of pavement on the worst section, which is the same section that will be one way next summer. The state had initially planned to not work on Mount Vernon Avenue until 2015.

The preliminary work this summer has already greatly smoothed out the road surface of Mount Vernon Avenue, which was breaking apart and covered with potholes for several years. The road is also Route 27 and a major northern gateway into the city.

Babb said after years of Mount Vernon Avenue being in rough shape, motorists are just starting to come back now that it is smoother. He said he may offer, during the one-way period next summer, some form of discount program to reward loyal customers for still coming there to get gas and other items. Other than that, he doesn’t plan changes to his business during the project.

“What are my choices?” Babb said. “I’m pretty much at a level where you either close the doors or take the loss. I’m obviously going to take the loss, to keep my employees working and the business viable.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.