WATERVILLE — Business and property owners, residents, and others got a chance Wednesday to ask questions about and comment on future improvements downtown that include converting traffic from one-way to two-way on Main and Front streets and changing angle parking to parallel parking on Main Street.

Those changes and more will occur as part of a $7.37 million federal BUILD grant awarded to the city late last year. The aim is to make downtown safer, more pedestrian-friendly and more mobile, according to officials.

The open house was held from 4 to 6 p.m. in the Chace Community Forum at the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons at 150 Main St. By 5 p.m., more than 100 people had come and gone after viewing draft plans and talking with state Department of Transportation officials, representatives of the Kennebec Water District, and Colby College and city officials, all of whom hosted the event.

The major changes are scheduled to be made in the summer of 2021, while next summer the Water District plans to replace old water mains downtown in advance of the project.

Ernie Martin, senior project manager for DOT’s Bureau of Project Development Highway Program, will oversee the project but was not involved in its planning. He said the open house allowed him to hear from the public and get the pulse of what people think of the project. Martin headed up similar projects in Ogunquit, Hallowell, Wiscasset and Belgrade Village. He noted that Waterville’s project is about improving mobility as part of the circulation pattern downtown.

“This project is all about safety,” he said.

Candace Savinelli, owner of the Holy Cannoli restaurant on Main Street, noted that a draft plan shows traffic moving south on Main Street, approaching the intersection, but not allowing it to turn east onto Ticonic Bridge, which spans the Kennebec River to Winslow, or continue south to Water Street. The only direction the traffic could turn, according to the plan, was west.

She also said she is worried about Main Street being torn up.

“Ripping up the street concerns me,” Savinelli said. “I think I need to go to Hallowell to see how other businesses dealt with the upheaval. I am lucky. I have a front entrance and a back entrance (onto The Concourse). People who only have a front entrance will be concerned, I think.”

But Savinelli was reassured after speaking with a DOT official Wednesday about the intersection issue.

“He listened,” she said. “They will look into it.”

Martin acknowledged that Savinelli’s question about vehicles not being able to turn left onto the bridge as part of the draft plan was a common theme Wednesday.

“We’ll take a look at it,” he said. “I’ve had that comment from probably half the people tonight.”

Another thing people asked about is whether a traffic light will be installed at the intersection of Appleton and Main streets, Martin said.

Attendees at Wednesday’s open house in Waterville look over a downtown traffic redesign plan that calls for conversion of traffic from one-way to two-way on Water and Front streets starting in 2021, a year after water mains are replaced in the area. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“They want a  signal there,” he said.

Martin said people who want to follow plans for the project may go to www.maine.gov/mdot/projects/waterville.

Sid Geller, who owns several properties downtown, said the idea of changing traffic from one-way to two-way is to make downtown a destination place, and the through-traffic would be re-routed away from Main Street. Geller came to Waterville in 1963, after the traffic was changed from two-way to one-way, he said.

“What I see on the plan is very nice,” he said.

John Fortier, owner of the State Farm Insurance agency on Silver Street downtown and chairman of the city’s Parking Study Committee, said he is excited about the project and looking forward to changes taking place.

“There’s room for a a few changes — fine-tuning,” said Fortier, a former city councilor. “It, hopefully, will allow a better flow from Winslow, to and from. It’s going to be a long process, but I’m excited. I’m behind this fully and looking forward to the changes, seeing heavy traffic off from Main Street — 18-wheelers.”

Resident Joan Sanzenbacher said she wants to see more plans for the project but is willing to entertain the ideas presented so far, including the idea of parallel parking on Main Street. She said it is difficult, if one is parked next to a large pickup truck, to see whether traffic is coming while trying to back out of a spot.

“I don’t mind parallel parking,” Sanzenbacher said.

Waterville police Chief Joseph Massey withheld issuing an opinion about the project until he has seen more.

“I think this is very much a moving target,” he said of draft plans.

Likewise, Waterville Public Works Director Mark Turner said he has been watching the project from outside and has not been involved in the planning or discussions. He said it will be interesting to see the change to two-way traffic, but stopped short of issuing an opinion of how it will work.

“Other than the fact that history is with us — we had this before on Front and Main streets — “I’m not going to say it will work now, but it certainly worked in the earlier times,” Turner said.

The city received the BUILD grant from the Federal Highway Administration. City Manager Michael Roy said recently that the DOT sent letters to business and property owners downtown that would be affected by the changes, to invite them to the open house. People who did not get a letter may contact Roy’s office at City Hall or the DOT, and their names will be added to the list of people to receive emails about the project.

Feasibility of two-way traffic on Front and Main streets has been talked about for several years amid downtown revitalization discussions spearheaded by Colby College and the city. The discussions follow the completion of a landmark mixed-use residential complex on Main Street downtown, the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons, where Wednesday’s meeting was held. Construction is scheduled to start this summer on Colby’s Lockwood Hotel, at the other end of the street downtown.

The BUILD grant is part of $26.6 million awarded to Maine projects through the BUILD program, previously known as TIGER, to help improve infrastructure, create jobs, reduce traffic congestion and increase safety. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, was instrumental in helping to secure the grant for Waterville.

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