AUGUSTA — The conversion of downtown Water Street to two-way traffic has, in its first four months, not caused any traffic accidents but has made places to safely park and unload deliveries harder to come by, merchants and officials say.

Police Chief Jared Mills said for the most part the conversion of the center section of Water Street to traffic flowing in both directions, after having been one-way only for the last 75 years, has gone well, but not entirely trouble-free.

No accidents have been reported on that section of street, between Winthrop Street and Calumet Bridge, since the change in mid-August, Mills said. There had been fears by some residents that the change was sure to prompt traffic accidents caused by motorists confused by the new traffic flow.

Mills said some safety concerns were created, however, by delivery and construction vehicles parking too close to, or in, crosswalks. During vendor deliveries and the renovation projects on multiple downtown buildings, it could become difficult for pedestrians to access crosswalks and for motorists trying to get around the vehicles. That problem, Mills said, has improved since the adjacent Commercial Street, which closed for construction work and improvements the day after Water Street switched to two-way traffic, recently reopened.

Heather Pouliot, president of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, said most people seem to like the change, and she’s heard from business owners that they have been busier since the fall and into the ongoing Christmas shopping season.

She said the downtown has seen increased traffic. That was something proponents of the change said was needed to help businesses attract customers by making them more visible to passing motorists. Before the change, motorists approaching Water Street from the north were forced to go around the one-way section.

“We’ve had a very full downtown, on Water Street and Commercial Street, which is great,” Pouliot said, agreeing that there has been more traffic, and thus longer lines at the traffic light at Water and Bridge streets. “Downtowns aren’t meant to be convenient; they’re meant for people to look around and shop and be part of a community. I’m actually happy about the longer lines. People will get used to it and it allows people to look around. If you’re in a hurry you can go around.”

Mills said lines of traffic, and traffic delays, at the Bridge and Water streets intersection have been longer but not so much that it has been a safety concern or required any police action to relieve congestion.

“The whole idea of this new traffic pattern is to have more people in the downtown traveling at slower speeds,” Mills said. “I believe the intended consequences are coming to fruition.”

While Pouliot said the change only resulted in the net loss of two parking spaces downtown. To make room for turning lanes, Water Street did lose parking spaces to the conversion. Additional parking spaces were added on Commercial Street, nearly as many as were lost on Water Street.

However Janine Collins, owner of Sonny’s Museum and Rock Shop, which sits between Water and Commercial streets, said customers of her’s and other businesses have had a harder time finding a safe place to park since the change.

She said some elderly or disabled customers can’t walk down steps or streets to get from Commercial Street into Water Street businesses.

“For elderly people, disabled people, there’s people who can’t go up and down stairs, so to park on Commercial Street and go to the Downtown Diner, or here, they just can’t do it,” she said. “I’ve had customers who said they drove around and around and couldn’t find a spot so they said ‘screw it’ and left.”

Tobias Parkhurst, a co-owner of downtown restaurant Cushnoc Brewing Co.  and owner of other downtown buildings, as well as chairman of the Augusta Parking District, said he found it a pleasant surprise how few parking spots were lost to the conversion. Officials initially warned as many as 16 parking spots could be lost.

He said at first he wasn’t sure the change was needed but he, and others, listened to experts who said it could help the ongoing downtown revitalization and decided to give it a shot. He said so far, so good.

“I’m a believer and glad we did it, and (I’m) proud of the way the city and the downtown community handled it,” he said. “It was a controversial thing, but it never got nasty. And it’s working now, and we look good.”

Parkhurst said every month in 2019 Cushnoc saw more business than it did those same months in 2018, though it’s hard to tell whether that’s related to the change from one-way to two-way, or just the business becoming more well-established.

Parkhurst said delivering supplies to the restaurant, including truckloads of wood that come regularly to fuel its wood-fired pizza oven, hasn’t been a problem since the change. When a load of wood is coming, he said, it is brought in early in the morning and they block off a couple of parking spaces to bring it on Water Street. Food deliveries come in their building’s back door, on Front Street, so those deliveries have not been impacted.

City Engineer Nicholas Hartley said the new traffic pattern has performed well so far and said public outreach to spread word about the change helped make for a seamless conversion. He said there were initially some problems due to a defective traffic detection device, but those were resolved when it was replaced.

He said the biggest concerns at this point include delivery vehicles parking in the travel lane to drop off goods. He said delivery drivers are encouraged to use loading zones on Oak and Commercial streets.

Oak Street is already marked as a loading zone. Councilors Thursday voted to formally change city parking rules to reflect that change and create the loading zone on Oak Street.

Councilors also unanimously approved changes to city parking rules including banning U-turns and parking against the flow of traffic on Water Street. Mills said those changes were prompted by driving behaviors seen since the change to two-way traffic on Water Street.

Collins said motorists have been making U-turns and parking against the flow of traffic when they see a parking space on the opposite side of the street, prompting an often dangerous move to cross into the oncoming traffic lane for the spot.

“One day I watched 13 people do U-turns, right on Water Street,” she said. “It’s dangerous, but people see a parking spot and do a U-turn to get it.”

She said the change should have included also making the still one-way Commercial Street a two-way street, to make it easier for people to circle around in both directions and look for parking spaces downtown.

Part of the project not yet complete is the addition of diagonal crosswalks 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. That walk, according to Hartley, could take some pedestrians two traffic light rotations, and more time, to cross the old way, which means crossing one street, then another, to get to the opposite corner. Conventional crosswalks will remain across each street.

Hartley said the pedestrian scramble is still planned but the weather in October and November didn’t allow for painting, so the new crossing will be painted by contractor Sargent Corp. in the spring when the firm returns for other work related to the completion of Commercial Street.

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