Less than three years after raising the speed limit to 70 mph on most of Interstate 295, the Maine Department of Transportation is dialing it back to 65 mph on the stretch between Falmouth and Topsham in an attempt to reduce vehicle crashes.

The slower speed limit, set to take effect March 27, is the first of several planned initiatives to reduce crashes on the roughly 22-mile stretch of the four-lane divided highway, which has seen an increase in accidents since the speed limit was raised in 2014. Crashes on that segment rose 29 percent from June 2013 to May 2016 and traffic volume increased 6.4 percent, according to DOT data. The 53-mile highway stretches from Scarborough to West Gardiner.

“It’s important to note that while an increase in traffic volume on I-295 has led to more crashes, speed and driver distraction are also major factors,” said Joyce Taylor, the department’s chief engineer. “By lowering the speed limit, we hope to allow drivers more reaction time to any event that may occur on the highway.”

The department has been monitoring the highway since it noticed an uptick in crashes in 2015. An analysis of radar readings over the past year showed average high speeds of 78-81 mph, about 10 mph faster than before the speed limit was raised, Taylor said. That, in combination with higher traffic volumes, created an unsustainable situation.

A truck travels south Wednesday on Interstate 295 in Freeport. The posted speed limit on the four-lane highway was raised to 70 mph in 2014, but data showing increases in volume and traffic accidents have prompted another change by Maine’s Department of Transportation: The limit on a stretch of I-295 will revert to 65 mph on March 27. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“Bottom line, sitting back another year or two to get study results didn’t feel right,” Taylor said in an interview Wednesday. “Doing nothing isn’t a real solution.”

Since the speed limit was raised in 2014, the Falmouth-Topsham section of I-295 appears to be the only area with a corresponding increase in crashes, Taylor said.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, had submitted a bill to reduce the I-295 speed limit to 60 mph between Falmouth and Brunswick and isn’t surprised that MDOT made the change, but she did not expect it to happen this quickly. Millett plans to withdraw her bill.

“I’m very pleased to see that their own analysis shows the change needs to be made and they did it without us having to legislate it,” Millett said. Although the speed limit is one part of the problem, drivers still have to contend with speeders, highway conditions and distractions, Millett noted, saying “this is one part of an overall change that has to happen.”

HEAVIER TRAFFIC, LONG-TERM STUDY

State traffic engineers have previously said that speed is only one factor driving the increase in accidents. Traffic volume increased 12 percent from 2009 to 2015 and was projected to exceed 1.2 million vehicles in 2016, a record number for the highway.

The added volume is taxing the capacity on I-295, especially during morning and evening commutes, when congestion and traffic jams are common. And there are more cars on the road for longer stretches of time, which has resulted in crashes throughout the day instead of just at peak times in the morning and evening.

A truck passes on the southbound side of Interstate 295 in Yarmouth on Wednesday. Besides lowering the speed limit to 65 mph between Falmouth and Topsham, state officials are planning safety improvements including traffic signals and lighting replacement on some I-295 feeder roads. Staff photo by Derek Davis

The DOT is undertaking a long-term technical study of the I-295 corridor to identify and prioritize highway improvements with updated traffic volume and crash forecasts. The study will focus on highway interchanges in the Falmouth area, which is a consistent hot-spot for crashes because people don’t have enough space to safely merge onto the highway during heavy traffic, Taylor said.

In the meantime, the DOT plans a number of immediate safety improvements included in the department’s 2017-19 work plan. Those changes include installation of a traffic signal with turn lanes at the I-295/Bucknam Road intersection in Falmouth, evaluation of a new southbound access on Exit 4 in South Portland, lighting replacement for northbound Exit 22 in Freeport and a traffic signal at the intersection of Route 1 and the Exit 17 northbound off-ramp in Yarmouth.

MORE SAFETY IMPROVEMENTS CONSIDERED

The department also plans to install 25 variable-message signs to inform drivers about crashes, road conditions and alternative routes, similar to ones on the Maine Turnpike. The DOT also is discussing expanding medians or turnoffs to help Maine State Police enforce speed limits and assist drivers.

State police have said that speed enforcement is incredibly difficult during high-traffic times, and sometimes pulling a driver over creates more of a safety problem than it solves. Traffic delays caused by crashes often lead to secondary crashes and longer delays, state police said.

“That section of the interstate is likely the most congested in Maine, and some of the most challenging in the state for troopers because of the huge volume of traffic,” Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland said in an email.

“Troopers will continue to enforce the speed limits to keep that stretch as safe as possible, and the speed reduction at the end of March will help,” he said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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