The Maine Department of Transportation released a report Tuesday that confirms what commuters already know – Interstate 295 around Portland is congested, unreliable, and, at times, unsafe.

The report includes near-term plans for improvements such as pull-off lanes, message boards and longer approach ramps to ease choking traffic and reduce the number of crashes on the 28-mile stretch of highway between Scarborough and Brunswick.

But easy solutions to the increasing traffic congestion are elusive, the state’s top engineer cautioned. The bottom line – traffic is bad in Portland, and it is going to get worse.

“The reality is, when you look at the Portland area in particular, it is a system issue,” said Joyce Taylor, chief engineer at the transportation department.

Even if the state were to add travel lanes to the four-lane highway, the existing ramps and side streets aren’t set up to deal with heavier traffic volumes, Taylor said.

“Portland is not set up to add capacity at this time,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

Traffic volumes on I-295 between Scarborough and Brunswick are at or near all-time highs, between 74,000 and 63,000 cars a day on average between Portland and Freeport. Demand is expected to grow 20 percent by 2040, according to the 97-page report.

By that time many sections of the highway will meet or exceed capacity at peak morning and afternoon travel times, creating pockets of gridlock, especially in highway’s southern sections, the report warns.

“With the resurgence in traffic growth in recent years, the capacity of some portions of the corridor are being severely tested, resulting in frequent traffic congestion and delay, particularly in South Portland and Portland,” it states.

Traffic peaks around 8 a.m. and 5 p.m, but the number of vehicles on the road is steady all day, according to a weekday traffic volume analysis.

“I was a little surprised about how consistently heavy the traffic can be,” Taylor said. “I think what it shows is that Portland has grown. It is not just tourism anymore. It is spreading out. From May to October, traffic is fairly consistently high. I think that is part of what changed everything.”

90,000 CARS A DAY

Citywide traffic problems have accompanied Portland’s current boom period, said Chris Branch, director of the city’s public works department.

Although local streets are crowded, nothing compares to traffic jams Branch witnesses on I-295.

“During the summer, there are 90,000 cars a day going through I-295,” making it one of the busiest sections of highway in the entire state, he said.

“That is just a huge amount of traffic; that is the kind of stuff you talk about in Boston.”

Locally, Portland is experimenting with better-integrated traffic signals and alternate travel corridors, as well as encouraging ride sharing, public transit and alternate transportation such as bicycling. Regionally, planners are trying to get through-traffic off I-295 and onto Interstate 95, Branch said.

“There is definitely congestion on local roads,” he added. “Everything is on the table right now.”

Crashes on the highway around Portland have surged with rising traffic volume. The number of crashes increased 27 percent between 2014 and 2016. A quarter of the 1,275 crashes during that period resulted in injuries, the Maine DOT said.

The state originally studied congestion and safety on I-295 in 2010, but returned to study the area after a surge of crashes that followed a decision to increase speed limits from 65 mph to 70 mph in 2014. Speed limits were reset to 65 mph last year in an effort to reduce crashes.

Tuesday’s report outlines more ways to make the highway safer and move traffic more efficiently. Most of the proposals are unfunded and unscheduled, but could be put on the state’s next three-year road plan.

Plans include lengthening approach and exit ramps along I-295 that are too short, forcing vehicles to merge into fast-moving traffic without coming up to speed and causing nearby vehicles to weave into other lanes or slam on the brakes to avoid collisions. Ramps around Falmouth, South Portland, Brunswick, Yarmouth and Freeport are being considered.

“In some cases when I-295 was built, we just sort of fit in some of the ramps. They were never really designed to any standards,” Taylor said.

COPING WITH CONGESTION

The department also plans a series of emergency areas – small pullouts with space for a few vehicles – at one-mile intervals along the highway where disabled vehicles could be moved or police could safely make traffic stops.

Other planned improvements include integrated electronic message boards to warn drivers about upcoming traffic congestion and give estimated times to popular exits. The department is discussing a service patrol vehicle that could move vehicles out of travel lanes after a break-down or crash. Some of the planned improvements already are underway, Taylor said.

“We put some money aside in the current work plan to do engineering to be more able to respond to this report,” she said. “Most of the near-term stuff has been under discussion anyway.”

Medium- and long-term improvements are harder to pin down, Taylor said.

The department is considering adding more travel lanes through Portland by building on the median or allowing people to travel on the shoulder during periods of heavy traffic. It is also considering building auxiliary lanes that would allow drivers to cruise between high-traffic exits like Forest Avenue and Franklin Street without merging into the travel lanes.

“Right now, it feels like a demolition derby, with everyone trying to grab up space,” Taylor said.

Adding more travel lanes along I-295, though popular with some drivers, is financially and environmentally unrealistic, Taylor added.

“The reality is, we are not going out and building a third lane on this system anytime soon, if ever,” Taylor said.

Future considerations include public transit, ride sharing and the impact autonomous vehicles will have.

“I think what this report did is give us a path to start looking at some of these things that people do think need to be done and can make a difference,” she added.

“This is going to be a long-term conversation that DOT has with citizens that use I-295. This is really the start of a larger conversation.”

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

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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