Maine’s two highway agencies launched a rare coordinated public information campaign May 15 in an effort to ease the impact that two construction projects less than 9 miles apart on a busy stretch of Interstate 95 will have on traffic.
In June, the Maine Department of Transportation will start a three-year $52.6 million rehabilitation of the Piscataqua River Bridge, which carries I-95 into and out of the state.
That project coincides with a new $39 million toll plaza the Maine Turnpike Authority has begun building in York, just 8.8 miles north of the bridge.
Welcome to Maine Ahead: Building a Better Gateway! MaineDOT, MTA & NHDOT are working together to modernize the travel corridor that welcomes millions of people to Maine every year. Follow along for construction updates & travel alerts or visit https://t.co/Rhp6VgE7PJ. pic.twitter.com/SLLPelZ77L— MaineAhead (@MaineAheadNews) May 15, 2019
All six lanes of traffic will remain open during high travel periods, and the agencies have taken other measures to make sure traffic keeps moving, Maine Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note said at a news conference in Kittery on May 15.
But travel interruptions are inevitable since tourists, tractor-trailers and commuters will be moving through an active construction area in one of the busiest sections of highway in the state, Van Note said.
“We have done absolutely everything we can to minimize traffic impacts,” he said.
That includes a new website, social media feeds and traffic alert system under the moniker “Maine Ahead: Building a Better Gateway” to give travelers up-to-date traffic conditions. A public meeting about the construction work is planned for June 25 in Kittery.
The department also is urging drivers to stay on the highway and not seek alternative routes on local roads. Kittery Town Manager Kendra Amaral said the town is worried that wayfinding apps might bring more drivers onto residential streets, but she is encouraged by the approach state officials are taking to keep travelers informed.
Kittery already has dealt with years of traffic diversions from the replacement of a bridge over the river to Portsmouth, N.H.
“At this point, we just want to rip the Band-Aid off, get this done,” she said.
The 50-year-old Piscataqua River span is “the most important bridge in the state of Maine,” Van Note said. About 74,000 vehicles cross the bridge every day, a volume that soars to 130,000 on busy summer days. State officials estimate 87% of Maine’s freight traffic and 80% of its 37 million annual tourists drive across the bridge.
The upcoming work, which will be done in partnership with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, includes resurfacing the bridge, fixing electrical and structural components, and possibly converting breakdown lanes into additional travel lanes to ease congestion at peak travel times.
Just north, the York tollbooth handles 15 million transactions a year, about 40% of the Turnpike Authority’s yearly revenue, agency Executive Director Peter Mills said. The new tollbooth will have high-speed automatic tolling that authorities expect will ease traffic buildups at the tolls, especially on summer weekends.
Work on the tollbooth started last fall and is supposed to be done by the summer of 2021. Bridge work will start in June and finish in May 2022.
The two projects were not timed to coincide. Construction of the York tollbooth was supposed to start at least five years ago but was postponed because of opposition to the project.
Simultaneous construction may be a blessing in disguise, Van Note said. Instead of six or more years of back-to-back highway work, travelers will deal with a shorter, more intense construction period.
“This is not going to be fun for everyone, we know that,” Van Note said. “This gateway is our front door. We need it to be safe, reliable and welcoming.”