AUGUSTA — Traffic flowed largely without incident in both directions through downtown Augusta for the first time in nearly 75 years starting at 10 a.m. Monday, in a change officials acknowledge wasn’t popular with some residents.

Mayor David Rollins, who with police Chief Jared Mills at the wheel made the first north-to-south run on the street which, a day earlier, would have been illegal, said it may feel weird for local motorists to drive what, to them, will initially feel like the wrong way up the street. Within a short time, though, it should feel natural to travel both ways on Water Street.

“This is the culmination of a lot of anticipation, work and planning, and not an event without its controversy,” Rollins said Monday afternoon. “In the community, I’d say it’s about six of one, a half-dozen of the other (who support and don’t support the change). We think it’s going to be a positive effect on downtown. And I think people are going to adjust quickly. Change brings trepidation. For people who are worried, I’m going to tell you, it’s going to be a great change.”

Augusta police Sgt. Christian Behr said late Monday afternoon there were no crashes on, or near, the downtown section of Water Street on the first day of the new traffic pattern, nor any near misses that he’d heard about or witnessed. He said there were some people who appeared to be confused, and others not paying complete attention, but overall “the new two-way actually has worked really well and it already seems like people have gotten used to going north and south.”

Behr reminded anyone going through downtown by foot or vehicle to be aware of the new traffic flow and look both ways before either crossing or entering the street.

Heather Pouliot, president of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, said adding two-way traffic to the center section of Water Street which has been one-way since 1945 won’t, by itself, be a “game-changer” but it will help bring more traffic and more businesses looking for a higher traffic count.

She said in recent years downtown advocates have talked with business owners from the Portland area who’ve said downtown Augusta doesn’t have a high enough traffic count for them to move there and know they’d have a steady customer base. She said the change is projected to bring an additional 200 or so cars a day through downtown. And she said that additional traffic count, in turn, will help bring more businesses to Augusta.

Keith Luke, the city’s deputy development director, said some residents have said they don’t see a need for the change, but he said it is needed to help decrease the downtown building vacancy rate. He said people who prefered it to remain one way primarily wanted to get through downtown Augusta, while officials hope the change will bring people who’ll stop in downtown Augusta, not just pass through.

Rollins and Pouliot both said after a couple of times driving through downtown, the new traffic flow was already starting to feel natural to them.

Rollins said the city will have to make changes to winter snow removal procedures with the change, since two directions of traffic will have to be maintained following a storm.

Lesley Jones, public works director, said the city will change how it removes snow from downtown, part of which will likely involve changes in parking rules following storms.

Workers painted stripes on the pavement downtown Sunday night and, Monday morning, finished installing new traffic signals at intersections of Bridge and Water streets and Winthrop and Water streets.

Part of the project not yet complete is the addition of a diagonal crosswalk at the intersection of Bridge and Water streets, which city and state Department of Transportation officials said they believe will be the first “pedestrian scramble” type of road crossing of its kind in Maine.

Once complete the new crosswalks crossing diagonally and forming an “X” in the middle of the intersection will allow pedestrians, if they wish, to cross from one corner to the opposite corner, a walk that, according to City Engineer Nicholas Hartley, could take some pedestrians two traffic light rotations to cross by getting to the same point the old way, of crossing one street, then another, to get to the opposite corner. Conventional crosswalks will remain across each street.

Hartley said while traffic signals at that intersection are ready for the change, the full diagonal crosswalks have not yet been painted on the street because the city was unable to find signs instructing pedestrians how to use the new system in time for Monday’s switchover. He said the city is having custom signs made up and the full diagonal crosswalk stripes will be painted on the street when the signs are in place.

While the project is expected to take away several parking spaces to allow for new turning lanes on Water Street, Hartley said nearly that many new parking spaces will be created as part of improvements planned on Commercial Street, which is just above Water Street. That project is expected to start shortly after the completion of the Water Street work. The net result, Hartley said, will be about the same number of parking spaces downtown after the work as there was previously.

The nearly $200,000 project converting the street to two-way started last month. Water Street never closed fully to traffic, but parking was banned for one day while the street was repaved.

Behr said delivery drivers making deliveries downtown should use Commercial Street, at least until it closes soon for a reconstruction project, Front Street, or a parking space to unload. While no bicycle lanes were added as part of the project, Behr said bicyclists are still welcome downtown and should follow the same rules of the road as motorists.

 

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