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Pike Industries Spearheads MaineDOT’s Six-Week I-295 Improvement Project

Thu May 15, 2008 - Northeast Edition
James A. Merolla

The Maine Department of Transportation has begun a six-week infrastructure improvement project on a 2.18-mi. (3.5 km) stretch of Interstate 295 southbound, by closing all of it down.

This is part of the estimated $28 to $32 million, 22-mi. (35.4 km) of work on southbound 295, to begin in mid-June. It will include guardrail upgrades, minor earthwork and repaving.

Pike Industries of Lewiston, Maine, has been contracted to complete the job. The project will span from West Gardiner to Topsham and MaineDOT said motorists should be aware of changing traffic patterns, slow moving construction vehicles and construction personnel.

Motorists should expect to see daily lane closures so that Pike can replace the concrete roadway with three layers of fresh pavement, expected to last for approximately 20 years.

MaineDOT said that 90 percent of the estimated $32 million cost of the work will be funded by the federal government, with the remaining 10 percent funded by the state.

MaineDOT said the total project will go from June 15 through the end of August 2008.

MaineDOT safety experts and traffic engineers have recommended that the safest and most efficient approach to the project is to close 18 mi. (29 km) of I-295 while the project is in progress, and to detour through-traffic (at least 50 percent) onto the Maine Turnpike and the two-lane U.S. Route 201, which goes through municipalities including Gardiner, Richmond and Bowdoinham.

Officials said that part of this roadway is on the verge of crumbling to dust. But many residents, commuters and even some officials said that closing both southbound lanes to make repairs — during the busy summer tourist season — is not a good idea.

But Joyce Taylor, assistant director of the Bureau of Project Development of MaineDOT, said closing the lanes allows the work to be done more quickly, cheaply and safely than if a lane were left open.

“Every day on a work site is another day when someone is at risk of an incident,” Taylor said. “Full closure means the contractors can work day and night, Sundays, everything … and it can get done with a full closure of two-and-a-half-months instead of three construction seasons.”

That’s good news for commuters like Johnny Odet, a salesman who travels this corridor up and down for his livelihood.

“I’m on the road all the time,” said Odet. “I know it needs to be done, but sometimes weeks become years with these things. Still, I know they want to get it done quickly. They’ve got to improve the busted concrete.”

About the Project

According to MaineDOT, I-295 from Brunswick to Gardiner was built with concrete slabs in the early 1970s. The time has come for a major rehabilitation of the southbound lanes of this highway. Once completed, this rehabilitation should last 20-plus years.

For many months now, MaineDOT has been evaluating the best way to approach this work, since it will have major impacts on residents, tourists and other motorists. After meetings with municipal officials, businesses and legislators, MaineDOT recommended a two-and-a-half-month full closure of the southbound lanes of I-295 from Gardiner to Topsham, with traffic re-routed onto two other highways.

The alternative would be to do this work in segments, which would continue through at least three construction seasons. Here’s why MaineDOT believes that a June-August closure is the best alternative:

• Safety — Both motorists and work crews would benefit from safer conditions. Traffic would be diverted to either the Maine Turnpike or Route 201. An aggressive communications campaign, as well as signage, would encourage commercial vehicles and other motorists bound for Portland and points south to use the Turnpike.

Efforts would be made to foster carpooling and travel during off-peak times, for those commuters using 201. A thorough traffic plan would be designed for 201.

• Time — The economic benefits of travel disruption for three months, as opposed to three years, are clear for residents, businesses and the tourism industry. This also allows MaineDOT to schedule construction when school is out and buses are off the roads.

This “get-in, get-out” approach allows MaineDOT to use financial incentives for contractors to get the work done early, and penalties for being late. By completely closing the highway, the contractor has increased workspace and flexible staging space, allowing multiple crews to work multiple locations, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

MaineDOT anticipates that portable paving plants and “rubblizing” equipment will be bought in, allowing the contractor to work the entire 20-mi. (32 km) construction site safely and quickly.

• Predictability — Construction is sometimes unpredictable and can have unintended consequences for alternate routes and motorists. If the road were partially open, unforeseen delays would cause significant congestion on I-295 and motorists would be unaware of alternate routes.

By using a full closure, motorists and businesses can plan ahead for alternate routes, carpooling, working from home, scheduling vacations and avoiding peak travel times.

• Additional Improvements — Prior to the full closure of I-295, MaineDOT will be making infrastructure improvements north and south of the construction area. Three bridges between Exits 31 and 28 in the Brunswick-Topsham area will be repaired. The project also will involve drainage and safety updates, new guardrails and paving of that area.

Traffic will be reduced to one lane during this activity, which is scheduled for May and early June. The 2.18-mi. segment from the Gardiner toll booth south to exit 49 will be repaved, and guardrails will be updated, between April 14 and June 6.

Improving I-295

According to MaineDOT, I-295 carries approximately 80,000 vehicles per day through the Portland area. This volume dwindles down to approximately 30,000 vehicles per day along the Freeport-to-Brunswick section and about 15,000 vehicles per day along the Brunswick-to-Gardiner section.

MaineDOT repaved much of the original Portland Loop section of I-295 during the mid-1990s at a cost of $3 million. In 2005, MaineDOT began a two-year, $5 million project to improve Exit 3 (ME 9/Westbrook Street) through the construction of a rebuilt overpass and new ramps.

In 2007, MaineDOT devised a long-range proposal to widen I-295 to six lanes (from four) from Exit 2 (Scarbourgh Connector) in South Portland north to Exit 9 (US 1) in downtown Portland, and from Exit 11 (I-495/Falmouth Spur) in Falmouth north to Exit 15 (US 1) in Yarmouth.

The two new lanes would be built in the median strip, requiring the construction of a concrete (“Jersey”) median barrier. The state anticipates a 20 percent increase in traffic along I-295 from Scarborough to Brunswick, but in public hearings held in early 2008, the widening proposal was panned by those who favored upgraded rail service north of Portland.

Frequent Questions

MaineDOT has anticipated commuter questions and has reproduced them on their Web site. Some of the most prominent and most asked, include:

• Why not establish two-way traffic in the northbound lanes, rather than detouring southbound traffic to Route 201?

While that approach can be used on some divided highway projects, it is not feasible for this section of I-295, for several reasons. The most important consideration is safety — the northbound lanes are not designed for vehicles to travel safely in the southbound direction. The shoulder width on the northbound passing lane is too narrow, and the current guardrail end-treatments are not designed to handle head-on impacts from vehicles headed in the southbound direction.

The increased number of vehicles in one lane would also increase the risk of crashes, and it would be difficult for emergency vehicles to get to crash locations, due to congestion. Further, the existing 8-ft. (2.4 m) shoulder is not sufficient for a breakdown lane.

The second consideration is traffic flow. Funneling the current volume of traffic from two lanes into one lane would be expected to create back-ups in both directions at peak traffic times.

• How many vehicles will use the alternate routes?

Because there are two alternate routes (the Maine Turnpike and Route 201) it is difficult to predict. DOT does know that during the peak of summer, a daily average of 13,500 vehicles use I-295 southbound. These vehicles would be choosing an alternate route based on their destinations.

Signage and other communication will advise motorists to use the Turnpike if traveling to Portland and points south, and to use Route 201 if traveling to Brunswick or Freeport. MaineDOT will closely monitor traffic conditions and make adjustments to the traffic control plan as needed. A key part of this traffic control plan will be to have an emergency response plan in place.

• Do you know how congested Route 201 will be?

DOT anticipates that the southbound Route 201 traffic will be similar to Route 1 traffic in Woolwich, Edgecomb or Belfast, which does move steadily.

• What about the Turnpike; will they have projects?

MaineDOT has been working with the MTA to ensure that its highway will be fully open throughout this construction activity. The MTA has been very cooperative and have rescheduled or postponed construction projects to accommodate traffic.

• Can MaineDOT open the project in segments?

MaineDOT traffic and safety engineers have concluded that this concept would increase safety risks because of the frequent left turns that would occur across traffic at the intersections leading to and from Route 201. In addition, dividing the Interstate into segments means contractors would have limited staging areas, and minimal flexibility to expedite project completion.

• Does DOT anticipate Route 24 will be used by some as an alternate route, instead of 201?

It is likely that there will be some additional use of Route 24 by very local commuters, but because it passes through three reduced speed sections — Bowdoinham, Richmond, and South Gardiner— it will not be an attractive option to through-commuters.

MaineDOT will be monitoring traffic counts along the corridor and if they rise significantly, it may consider adjustments such as alternative route-signing. Route 24 is a candidate for future highway treatment, and the towns along the corridor are working with the department to come up with cost-effective solutions that can make that roadway eligible for funding in the next funding cycle.

Lane said the DOT will remain flexible and will watch the project and traffic flow around it closely throughout the project, and make changes if necessary.

When traffic is flowing smoothly, the U.S. Route 201 detour might add as little as 10 minutes to the time it takes to drive through the area, officials say.

MaineDOT also wants to do the northbound side of the highway, but funding is not in place. CEG

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