AUGUSTA — Nearly 75 years since traffic last flowed through downtown Augusta in both directions — and a year since city councilors approved a return to two-way traffic — work to make the change on Water Street is finally expected to start.

The nearly $200,000 project is scheduled to start Monday. It should take about a month to install new traffic signals, put down a new layer of pavement to cover up the current lane markings and alter crosswalks and some sections of sidewalk, including making them accessible to people with disabilities. Workers also will paint new striping to indicate travel and turning lanes, and parking spaces, and make changes at intersections to accommodate the traffic pattern change on the middle section of Water Street.

“Right now, the most important thing is making sure this is as smooth of a transition as possible,” said Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance and a major advocate for converting downtown Water Street to two-way traffic. “Just like with anything new, give it a chance.

“The majority of roads we take every day are two way, so we’re already conditioned to think that way,” he added. “I think it’s going to feel more natural, to come off Bridge Street and make a left-hand turn onto Water Street.”

Hall and city Engineer Nicholas Hartley said disruptions to traffic, parking and downtown businesses should be minimal for most of the project, since much of the initial work will take place along sidewalks, not out in the street.

While the street is expected to remain open to traffic for the duration of the project, there will be no on-street parking on Water Street during the repaving. That work is expected to take place near the end of the project and to take about two days.

“Once paving starts, the street will be closed to all parking for two or so days,” Hartley said. “They’ll have to close all the parking in the work area.”

Traffic in the one-way section of Water Street heads north on March 9, 2018, in downtown Augusta. Kennebec Journal file photo by Joe Phelan

Alternative parking is available for free on Front Street. During the construction project, parking along the railbed between Winthrop and Bridge streets, which normally is by permit only, also will be free.

All downtown businesses are expected to remain open and accessible during the project.

“It should be business as usual,” Hall said.

Once the work is complete, the street will be opened up to two-way traffic. Road signs indicating the new traffic pattern and message boards alerting motorists to the change will be in place when the new traffic pattern begins. The city also will seek to spread the word with advertising and social media posts.

Sargent Corp. is the contractor on the job and was the low bidder in a project combining the Water Street conversion with a larger project that includes the reconstruction of Commercial Street, which sits just above Water Street.

Converting the mid-downtown section of Water Street from the current one-way traffic flow to traffic moving in both directions was initially projected to cost $156,000 but increased to $196,000 as the city struggled to find a contractor to take on the work.

Officials initially hoped to covert downtown to two-way traffic last fall, but work was delayed due to the inability to find a contractor.

City Manager William Bridgeo said contractors able to do the job told the city they couldn’t meet the deadline for completing work because the tight labor market left them busy and lacking workers.

In response, the Water Street work was wrapped into the larger Commercial Street job, which will follow the traffic conversion project.

The cost of that work swelled from the previously budgeted $825,000 to $1.4 million, with the city again struggling to find a contractor. It finally received two bids for the overall project, after initially drawing none, but at the higher than expected cost.

The larger project will rebuild Commercial Street, which will remain one-way headed south as it is now and create wider sidewalks. That work also includes installation of more decorative streetlights and improving the street’s aesthetics to make it a better fit with the rest of the adjacent downtown area.

Councilors voted 5-2 in July 2018 in favor of the controversial proposal to open up the heart of the downtown to traffic flowing in both directions.

The proposal to make the change faced opposition from critics who said it wasn’t needed or worth spending money on. Those in opposition said it also would take away much-needed parking spaces and negatively alter traffic patterns in the city.

While the project is expected to take away several parking spaces to allow for new turning lanes, Hartley said nearly that many new parking spaces will be created as part of the Commercial Street work. The net result will be about the same number of parking spaces downtown after the work as there are now.

The downtown street was two-way until July 15, 1945. Then-mayor Sanford Fogg Jr. announced the plan to convert both Water Street and the parallel Commercial Street to one-way traffic, in opposite directions from each other, on May 28, 1945. He said it had been worked out by then-police Chief Vernard W. Dudley. The goal of the change, according to a May 29, 1945, Kennebec Journal report, was to speed up traffic. Fogg was quoted in that day’s paper as saying the police chief believed the change in traffic flow “will clear Water Street faster and I think we should give it a trial.”

Hall said a goal of changing back to two-way is to slow that traffic back down.

He said advocates for the change looked at almost 40 different studies of cities where they switched from one-way to two-way traffic, and in nearly every case, those downtowns fared better economically than they had before. Hall said change should bring more traffic through downtown, which is good for the businesses there and will be safer because traffic will move slower. The new traffic pattern will be less confusing to tourists and other visitors, he said, who are currently forced to drive around downtown Water Street if coming from the north.

“The reason it changed was to push traffic through as fast as possible. We don’t need that anymore. There are alternative routes you can take around downtown now,” Hall said. “We’re very excited about it, and think it’s going to be a positive change.”

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