In Portland, Maine, an urban highway has long divided the downtown from nearby neighborhoods. Not only does it cut through the heart of this historic city, but the I-295 freeway’s excessive amount of on-ramps create numerous dangerous interactions between people walking and biking, and people driving, as well as sucking up valuable downtown real estate.
I recently spoke with two local advocates (Nick Aceto and Zack Barowitz) who are fighting to lessen the impact of the highway, especially as it interacts with a busy, fast-moving local street, Congress, which splits into a one-way couplet after passing under the highway. Their fight has not been easy though and it exemplifies a classic problem with top-down decision making: Residents, neighborhood groups, businesses and many local leaders want to see changes made at this interchange—ideally closing the highway on-ramp and turning the one-way streets back into two-ways—but the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) is the ultimate decider when it comes to highways and has effectively put the project on hiatus by keeping the ramps in place and by virtue of their jurisdiction over Congress Street.
Nick Aceto is a landscape architect who grew up in Portland. After starting a business with his partner in Colorado, the pair decided to return to their hometown. They knew they wanted to live and work somewhere walkable and bikeable so they chose to locate their business downtown and began searching for a home to purchase nearby. They settled on a property in the Libbytown neighborhood, just west of downtown because it had good potential for appreciation and it was an active, friendly, accessible community.
In order to get to work every day though, Nick and his partner have to traverse a dangerous web of highway on-ramps and fast-moving streets. “You take your life in your hands to cross this interchange,” he says.
Zack Barowitz is a seven year resident of the neighborhood. By selecting this area, he found an affordable home just blocks away from a far more desirable neighborhood. He enjoys cycling and walking and the city’s small size makes it an ideal place for these affordable modes of transportation—if it weren't for the highway that cuts through the area and its accompanying stroad-type interchanges.
There are a total of 11 interchanges in the Libbytown neighborhood—just from one highway—many of them within blocks of each other, making them highly redundant. But the road is a major arterial for commuters who live outside the city, so the danger and interference of this highway has persisted.
It’s particularly troubling because, while the area immediately surrounding the highway looks like any other auto-oriented highway zone:
...this neighborhood is far from suburban. People frequently walk and bike through the area and are forced to contend with the monstrous, unsafe presence of the highway and accompanying stroads.
One pertinent example of this danger is Thompson’s Point, an outdoor music venue with a nearby brewery, ice rink, restaurants, and other commercial ventures. Nick explained that people heading to Thompson’s Point will frequently park in adjacent Libbytown to attend a concert, and have to cross the dangerous intersection of Congress and I-295 in the process.
“You see the dirt path worn in the weeds,” says Nick, “so people are walking. It’s just a matter of time before someone gets killed.”
A Solution is Proposed…
It should be no surprise that this interchange is a high crash location. Between 2010 and 2015, the area around this highway interchange saw hundreds of car crashes, including dozens involving pedestrians and cyclists.
Four years ago, with this in mind, the City of Portland and the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System (PACTS) assembled a task force of local leaders and organizations who, together with an engineering and planning consultant, Dubois & King, undertook a thorough study of the area and came up with some recommendations to make it safer. (Read the full report here.) These included:
- closing four of the redundant highway ramps near Libbytown,
- turning Congress Street (and accompanying Park Avenue) into a two-way street at the split, and
- adding bike lanes and crosswalks at key locations.
…And Quickly Shot Down.
MaineDOT shot back by saying essentially that the underlying assumptions and data that the report was based on were false. They wrote in a letter to the task force:
Importantly, MaineDOT has determined that even if these flaws in the modeling tabulations did not exist, and even if the conclusions regarding the efforts on the study-area network were correct, the adverse effects on the overall transportation system indentified in the report, including on multiple intersections and roadway segments, far exceed the potential traffic-calming and other benefits that are envisioned by the proposed removal of the Interstate ramps.
In other words: We, as the state transportation agency know more about moving cars quickly than any residents or leaders in your community (through which the cars are quickly passing) and the fast movement of automobiles is our #1 priority. Yes, even the prevention of crashes and deaths—not to mention improving economic prosperity, affordability and neighborhood attractiveness—are not worth sacrificing an extra few seconds of precious drive time for. Read how the task force responded here.
The Future of Libbytown
With that, the proposed changes were put on hold, until very recently. Now a taskforce has re-formed to again study the intersection of Congress and I-295 (mostly on PACTS’s dollar).
Nick and Zack who have been part of this process are hoping that these additional conclusive findings will be accepted by the MaineDOT and that the previous recommendations will be followed. They would also like to see the tens of acres of land that are tied up in this pretzel highway network returned as productive space—either being sold to a land bank or on the private market. "We've been promised a clean slate in their approach to this," says Zack.
"Portland has the potential to be an up-and-coming city, if it’s not already,” says Nick. “Any decisions that are made are going to echo for decades.”
Let's hope that safety and economic priorities can prevail in the face of misguided, auto-oriented design.
(Top photo source: Wikimedia)