WATERVILLE — The City Council on Tuesday voted 7-0 to support an estimated $4.4 million change in downtown traffic patterns that would make Main and Front streets two-way and include significant changes to intersections downtown.

Mayor Nick Isgro and City Manager Michael Roy emphasized that the vote does not mean two-way traffic will be instituted; it merely allows the city to pursue funding from the state and federal governments, as well as private funding, to make the change.

Isgro said recently that before any funding searches could take place, the council had to show support for the two-way traffic idea, and that would send a signal to the state Department of Transportation that the city is ready to take a serious look at doing so. The state, he said, is building a two-year plan with the governor’s office, and Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt has been supportive of the idea and wants to be able to dedicate resources to the project, according to Isgro.

Major improvements could be made at a number of downtown intersections as part of the work to help improve pedestrian safety if Main and Front streets are made two-way. The changes and improvements would be in keeping with recommendations noted in a downtown feasibility study completed in December.

Roy said public meetings would be held before the start of any construction to allow public input.

Councilor Nick Champagne, R-Ward 5, said that while he supports seeking funding for such a project, he has a number of concerns, including that it is nearly impossible for tractor-trailers to get through The Concourse now and if a lane is taken away, officials would need to find a way for such trucks or box trucks to be able to get to downtown and through The Concourse.

Councilor Sydney Mayhew, R-Ward 4, said he also supports the idea of pursuing funding options, but his constituents are apprehensive about a change.

“They are vehemently opposed to any kind of taxpayer money being spent on this or a rise in property taxes to equalize or participate in this,” Mayhew said.

But Council Chairman Steve Soule, D-Ward 1, said discussing change is difficult for people. He reminded those in the council chamber that the vote would represent merely a first step. When Main Street was changed from two-way to one-way 60 years ago, everyone said it would never work, he said.

“If you study other towns in the state of Maine, none of them had second thoughts about it,” he said.

As Soule spoke, thunder crashed and lightning flashed through the chamber and the lights went out, sending the room into complete darkness. Soule said he had hoped his comments were enlightening, prompting laughter. The lights came back on a minute or so later.

Councilor Winifred Tate, D-Ward 6, said officials of businesses and organizations downtown are concerned about deliveries and what two-way traffic would mean in that regard. Her ward constituents are concerned about safety, she said.

“This is going to be a very slow, measured process and participation is going to be central in this process,” she said.

Burleigh Street resident Sid Geller, who owns several buildings downtown, said he favors trying to get funding for the project but he thinks one of the biggest problems that will occur with two-way traffic is finding places to park.

“I think that’s the biggest issue here, because without parking we won’t have any customers,” Geller said.

Isgro said that there is plenty of room for a variety of parking scenarios with the width of Main Street, but Geller said he thinks the biggest parking problem is on the upper part of Main Street.

Roy said the city had planned to start working Tuesday on the city-owned former Elden Inn property off Main Street to turn it into a parking lot for the public, but because of the weather, it was put off. He said the project, creating 20 to 22 parking spaces, will start soon.

“Our plan is to pave it in the next construction season and possibly (put in) lights,” Roy said.

Meanwhile, Cindy Jacobs, chairwoman of the Waterville Public Library Board of Trustees, said crossing Front and Main streets is difficult and the city needs to make the streets safer to cross. She said she hoped the city would pursue funding for the project.

Nathan Towne, who co-owns Christopher Hastings Confections on Common Street and is marketing manager for Waterville Creates!, concurred that crossing Main Street is dangerous. Rich Bryant, site manager for CGI Group, which is housed temporarily at the Hathaway Creative Center and soon will move to 173 Main St., which Colby College renovated, urged the council to pursue funding.

Julian Payne, a candidate for Waterville Board of Education, also supported pursuing funding options. Mayoral candidate Erik Thomas, a former councilor, said if safety is a concern, there’s no reason the city has to wait until two-way traffic is introduced; traffic enforcement could be done now.

Police Chief Joseph Massey said he has dedicated an officer to downtown traffic enforcement just about every day since June and his department has had few complaints about dangerous intersections and sidewalks.

“We have done a tremendous amount of traffic enforcement downtown, and I think it’s paying off for traffic and parking,” he said.

During discussions held in the city over the last year and a half about downtown revitalization, those who supported two-way traffic on Front and Main streets said the change would help to slow traffic; make the area safer for drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists; and encourage people to stop, shop, eat and recreate downtown.

Downtown revitalization is progressing, with construction of a $25 million Colby College residential complex underway on Main Street and renovation of the former Hains Building across the street complete. Colby plans to build a boutique hotel starting next year at the former Levine’s clothing store site at the south end of downtown and is considering plans for the former Waterville Hardware building across the street.

Some business owners are concerned that having two-way traffic would cause problems when delivery trucks need to park downtown. The traffic change also would make it hard for elderly patrons to reach those businesses, they say.

Isgro said concerns would be addressed as part of the exploration process and that it is important that the majority of downtown businesses and building owners support two-way traffic, or it will not happen.

Isgro, Colby President David Greene, city officials, downtown business advocates and those involved in the arts have met several times to explore ways to help improve the downtown, draw more people there, help support and enhance existing business and arts organizations and help boost economic development. Priorities they identified to help make improvements included addressing vacant and dilapidated buildings. Colby plans to infuse some $60 million into downtown revitalization.

In other matters Tuesday, councilors took the first of two votes to approve a recommendation by the Planning Board to rezone 299 Main St. and 70 Oak St. from Residential-C to Contract Zoned District/Commercial-A to allow KV Federal Credit Union to build a branch there and move from its current location on Quarry Road. The credit union wants to buy the Main and Oak street properties, which are the locations of a four-unit apartment building and a duplex, respectively. The properties, just north of Beth Israel Congregation synagogue at 291 Main St., are owned by Brown House Properties and bounded by Kelsey, Main and Oak streets.

Councilors also voted 6-1 to buy a dual compartment packer truck for trash and recyclables for $216,236 from Freightliner of Maine, of Bangor, and a sidewalk tractor with attachments. Champagne voted against the purchase, saying he opposes the idea of the city take over recycling pickup.

The council appointed former Councilor Rosemary Winslow to the Haines Charity Relief Committee.

Amy Calder — 861-9247 [email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

 

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