SKOWHEGAN — The Second Bridge Study Team met Tuesday night to gather public input on how to address downtown traffic issues and the possibility of a second bridge.

The study, begun in June by consulting firm T.Y. Lin of Falmouth, includes evaluation of several factors, including transportation measures, environmental resources, cost and funding measures, and public feedback. The 7 p.m. meeting was moderated by team member Craig Freshley of Good Group Decisions.

Craig Freshley, a professional moderator with Good Group Decisions, uses a map while fielding questions from community members Tuesday during the Skowhegan Second Bridge meeting at the community center in Skowhegan. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson

Discussions on a potential new bridge began last fall when the Board of Selectmen met with the state transportation commissioner to find ways to improve transportation in the Skowhegan area. From 1997-2006, another committee had been exploring ways to divert truck traffic away from the downtown and Madison Avenue in order to create space to draw more people downtown. This effort was not successful, however, as disputes about a bypass could not be solved and the community would not support the plan.

“(We) essentially walked away (from the old plan),” said Nate Howard, of Maine Department of Transportation. “An alternative plan was not permitted, and it did not have the local support, and it just was not realistic. The town came to us last year and we have been trying to come to a solution.”

“(We’re hoping to) improve downtown mobility and balance infrastructure so it works for cars, pedestrians and bicyclists,” Tom Errico, a traffic engineer at T.Y. Lin, said at the meeting. “One thing I have come to realize is that Skowhegan has a lot going on on both sides of the river, which is certainly unique.”

Attendees were presented with three questions to consider. Organizers asked them what they viewed as advantages to having a new bridge, concerns that might come with a new bridge, and ideas for solutions to any concerns that were brought up. Approximately 60 people from town attended the meeting.

The bridge currently sees 23,000 vehicles a day, according to Ericco, of which 1,000 are tractor-trailer trucks that slow down traffic due to slower speeds and wider turns. The Casco Bay Bridge that connects Portland and South Portland handles 30,000 vehicles each day, he said.

“From a percentage perspective, trucks matter because they slow things down,” he said.

Community members gather information during a question-and-answer period during the Skowhegan Second Bridge meeting Tuesday at the community center in Skowhegan. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson

Some voiced concerns that a bridge is necessary as local companies, including New Balance and Sappi, continue to grow and increase truck traffic. While Ericco could not confirm this, he noted it for the group to consider moving forward in the study.

The group found that two advantages of diverting traffic onto a second bridge could be improved safety and mobility downtown.

Tom Ericco, a traffic engineer at T.Y. Lin, fields questions from community members Tuesday during a question-and-answer period at the Skowhegan Second Bridge meeting at the community center. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson

“It’s about safety,” said state Rep. Betty Austin, who also serves on the Board of Selectmen. “I know a lot of white-haired people that don’t go really fast that are afraid to shop downtown because they don’t think they can get across the street.”

No decision has been made on whether or not to build a new bridge, Town Manager Christine Almand and Ericco emphasized during the meeting. Additionally, there has been no decision on a location for a potential bridge. The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 27. Almand hopes to have the study report finalized at a tentative third meeting on May 28.

The main concern about new bridge construction appeared to be over location. If  a new bridge were to be constructed, some believe that this could “solve problems in little blocks” but become the next problem. Additionally, the community encouraged surveyors to look at the impact a new bridge could have on local roads as this would increase traffic in different areas.

Ideas presented to the team included finding a route just to bypass truck traffic and upgrade existing roads.

At the end of the meeting, attendees were urged to fill out the feedback survey or access it online through Oct. 15 at skowheganbridge.com. There, members of the community can answer questions and provide feedback to be considered by the Study Team, comprised of 15 members from the town, transportation department, moderators and consultant groups.

At the end of the meeting, Rod Whittemore, a former state senator for the town, asked those in the room to raise their hands to take a quick poll to see where people stood on the issue. Approximately 90% of the crowd agreed that a new bridge was necessary.

 

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