SKOWHEGAN — Recent mishaps that took down power lines within 25 minutes of one another in two locations in downtown Skowhegan, bringing traffic to gridlock, also spotlighted two nagging questions: Is there a need for a second bridge over the Kennebec River, and should the fire station — located on the existing bridges where one of the mishaps happened — be moved to a new location?

Those questions were discussed by selectmen Tuesday night, setting the stage for public hearings, referendum votes to come, and, as it turned out, a special selectmen’s meeting sometime next week.

The board agreed to move forward with plans to examine the second-bridge idea, but selectmen themselves were gridlocked Tuesday night, voting 2-2 on holding a Nov. 6 referendum on borrowing $8.5 million for the combined public safety building and holding a public hearing on the question Oct. 16.

The gridlock came with Selectwoman Betty Austin and Selectman Eugene Rouse objecting to the proposed location of the public safety building, with Chairman Paul York and Selectman Roger Staples voting in favor of the plan.

Selectwoman Vanessa York was not in attendance Tuesday night.

“Our town is the only town with so many main routes with only one bridge,” Austin said.

Voters at Town Meeting in June approved the purchase of the land for the proposed public safety building. It would be built on Dunlop Lane, on 11.3 acres between the Nazarene New Horizons Community Church and a large water tower on East Madison Road in Skowhegan.

That’s why the gridlock occurred Tuesday night.

Austin said she worried that the bridge on Madison Avenue near Gifford’s Ice Cream could become snarled with traffic in an emergency, thus blocking the only route to the rest of town.

Selectman Eugene Rouse said his objection was not having a police department right downtown for easy citizen access.

Others is the audience also expressed doubts about the proposed East Madison Road location — not the project itself.

The board agreed to hold a special selectmen’s meeting next week to break the tie or come to a consensus.

The Fire Department operates in an aging brick building on Island Avenue where the two Margaret Chase Smith Bridges meet. The Police Department operates in the basement of the Municipal Building on Water Street.

Skowhegan Fire Chief Shawn Howard said the fire station on Island Avenue was built in 1904 and is believed to be the oldest continuously operating firehouse in the state.

“It was a kind of a test of the system — how things move,” Howard said of the power lines incident Aug. 14.

Both Howard and police Chief David Bucknam said a combined public safety building would add to the efficiency of both departments and save money on heat, electricity and fuel. Howard appealed to Austin and Rouse to reconsider their votes. Paul York said the East Madison Road location was the best one of 13 possible locations researched by the 12-member Public Safety Committee.

Howard said the worst time of day on the Skowhegan bridges is between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m., when shifts change at New Balance on Waterville Road and the schools west of town let out.

“Sometimes what happens on the bridges is if the lights haven’t turned. There’s nowhere for the people to pull over,” Howard said. “They can’t get up on the sidewalks; there’s only so much room.”

He said traffic often backs up on connecting streets on the south side of the bridges.

“There’s obviously more traffic than there was 20 years ago,” he said.

Howard said earlier this year that Skowhegan is divided into four fire districts and that the proposed site is in an area where 36 percent of all the fire calls originate. He said the proposed site is 1.4 miles from the current station and that anywhere a station is located has its advantages and disadvantages. Howard added that 18 of the 22 firefighters live on that side of the Kennebec River.

Bucknam said the new location would not affect call times for police, as they are in patrol cruisers all over town.

The proposed location also would not affect homeowners’ insurance rates.

On the second-bridge question, one possibility also would be to widen the existing bridges, which now are only three lanes of traffic with an estimated traffic count of 19,140 cars and trucks crossing every day, according to 2014 figures.

Howard said “the big hassle” years ago surrounding the thought of a second bridge was an additional proposal for a bypass road, which property owners along the river on U.S. Route 201 and in town objected to because it would have taken parts of their property.

Staples was quick to note Tuesday night that a bypass plan was off the table.

Debate over a second bridge started more than 20 years ago and has not gone away. The need for a combined public safety building is not new, either.

Members of the Second Bridge Committee, organized in 1997 to address traffic and truck congestion in the downtown, voted to disband in 2006. The committee was formed initially to find a way to divert truck traffic away from the downtown area and Madison Avenue, to make the downtown more user friendly.

Several ideas about where to put the second bridge in relation to U.S. Route 201 across the river south of town were brought up, including one that would have dropped an exit ramp where Veterans’ Memorial Park is now, next to the Municipal Building, and another close to the rest area on U.S. Route 2, east of downtown.

None of the ideas ever was proposed officially.

In a nonbinding referendum in March 2004, residents voted 2–to–1 to support construction of a second bridge, but opposed — 854–544 — a connecting route that would bypass the downtown.

Skowhegan Town Manager Christine Almand said she needed authorization from selectmen to send a letter to the commissioner of the state Department of Transportation to set up meetings to discuss the second-bridge proposal. She said the DOT already has invested in studies surrounding the idea of second bridge to ease traffic.

“I have heard a lot of people that have stated they’re in favor of a second bridge,” Almand said Tuesday before the selectmen’s meeting. “I’m just not sure that it would be easy to agree on where a bridge would go. It would be hard to agree where to put it.”

Newly elected Selectman Roger Staples said one of the biggest concerns is the heavy traffic through Skowhegan every day. He said it’s time to bring back the issue of a second bridge over the Kennebec River.

“In my lifetime I’d like to see the heavy traffic, heavy trucking, eliminated from downtown,” he said leading up to the June municipal elections. “I don’t think it can be done without a second bridge — probably somewhere on (U.S.) Route 2 east.”

No dates have been set for discussion with state transportation officials about a second bridge.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.