AUGUSTA — Omer Coulombe has lived all of his 86 years on Mount Vernon Avenue. He’s watched it transform from a quiet, dirt road that took people to the country, which pretty much began at Coulombe’s house, into one of the city’s busiest streets, carrying drivers from Interstate 95 and north Augusta toward downtown.

Coulombe also has watched the road fall into disrepair, so rife with ruts, cracks and potholes that business owners believed they were losing customers as drivers sought to bypass the road to reach their destinations.

Earlier this summer, the state began a complete overhaul of the road, a process that limited a section of the road in front of Coulombe’s house to one-way traffic. The one-way section, which has been that way since Aug. 14, is expected to remain so through much of November. It’s an inconvenience to Coulombe and others who live along the road, who must now detour a couple of miles north if they want to drive south to downtown. But the inconvenience is one that Coulombe, at least, is willing to accept for the promise of an improved road.

“It’s not a problem for me except for when I have to go get a coffee at the Cumberland Farms,” he said. “I have to go all the way around. It’s a pain in the butt, but what are you going to do?”

The $4.3 million reconstruction project is expected to continue through next June. The one-way restriction, as specified in the contract, is expected to last three months. The one-way section is about a half-mile long, from Mill Street near the Bond Brook Bridge just north of the Bond and Boothby street intersection to Fielding’s Oil & Propane depot at 105 Mount Vernon Ave.

The rest of Mount Vernon Avenue will remain open to two-way traffic, but those who fail to notice the signs warning southbound motorists of the closed road ahead are forced to turn around in the fuel depot parking lot. Coulombe, who can see the flip-flopping cars from his driveway just north of the one-way section, said the scenario plays out hundreds of times a day.

“It goes on all day,” he said. “Evidently they have to be told.”

The road flagger assigned the task of delivering the bad news to those drivers, Raymond Braley, is perplexed at the number of drivers who make it all the way to his roadblock without noticing the signs warning them of the closed road ahead. Braley, to satisfy his own curiosity, drove the route from the interstate to see how many signs drivers were missing. He counted 14. That doesn’t include at least a half dozen signs, including a flashing billboard at the closure itself, that variously describe the section as “one way” and “closed.” Still, a number of drivers pull up to the closure and stop, as if waiting for Braley to let them through.

“I get ’em like that all day long,” Braley said, pointing toward the depot driveway as another batch of cars approached the closure. “They get mad at me ’cause they can’t read.”

The anger ranges from a mild irritation, expressed by shrugged shoulders and raised hands, to boiling hot. Braley said one driver was so incredulous he got out of his car and began hopping up and down as he screamed at Braley. Another driver hit a different flagger with a rocks and debris kicked up when the driver intentionally spun his vehicle’s tires on the loose dirt. Many drivers, Braley said, are angry they were allowed to drive so far south without a warning that the section of road was closed.

“I’m just doing what I’m told,” Braley said. “I’m the one that catches all the hell for it.”

At least one resident, and countless other drivers, ignore the road closure sign altogether during the nights and weekends when there is no construction work or flagger. George Soucy, who owns two buildings along the one-way section, and Roger Jean, who lives at the southern end of the closure, both said drivers are routinely continuing south, hoping not to meet a northbound vehicle.

“Someone could get hurt,” Soucy said.

Augusta police Lt. Kevin Lully said reports indicate that police have received about 40 traffic-related complaints on the road since Aug. 17. That includes warnings and summonses related to the construction zone. Police have written 28 traffic violations in that area, at least 75 percent of which are related to the construction zone and the sign postings. Lully said the signs and cones have been re-arranged to mark the closure clearly and eliminate any credible claim of ignorance.

“People get to that location and they’re just willfully going through,” Lully said. “You have to willfully go the wrong way.”

Police have stepped up patrols in the area, particularly during stretches when there is no ongoing construction, Lully said.

Drivers disobeying the one-way prohibition have been charged with failure to obey a traffic control device, which carries a potential fine of $137, Lully said.

“It’s posted all the way back to the Wal-Mart area,” Lully said. “There are several signs.”

The loudest objections appear to be from those passing through on the road rather than from those who live there. Soucy said he has not heard from tenants who are bothered by the prohibition against driving south into town. Those tenants, and others who live along the route, many of whom walk into the downtown, ultimately will benefit greatly from the project, Soucy said.

“The sidewalk was so bad kids couldn’t even ride their bikes on them,” he said.

Soucy said the reconstruction will repair badly needed drainage and repair crumbling retaining walls.

“Hopefully it will improve the look of the neighborhood,” Soucy said. “The street has needed it for years.”

Lionel Villeneuve, who lives near the midpoint of the one-way section, has been so anxious for repairs to the road that the inconvenience of the construction and one-way section is hardly noticeable.

“I’m so happy you wouldn’t believe it,” said Villeneuve, who has lived in his house since 1968. “It used to be so nice and neat.”

Jean, who has enjoyed watching the construction progress from his chair on the front porch of the house where he was born 80 years ago, recalled a similar heyday for Mount Vernon Avenue. Jean spills out stories of growing up on the street.

“The street was family,” he said.

Jean hopes the construction project will restore some of the road’s ambience. In the meantime, he sees the construction as just a sign of progress, even if it means his drive into town takes a little longer.

“I’m in no hurry,” he said. “I’ve got all the time in the world.

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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