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September 11, 2018 12:15 PM, EDT

Officials Approve Plan to Widen Maine Turnpike Outside Portland

Toll booth along the Maine Turnpike A toll booth along the Maine Turnpike. (Maine Turnpike Administration)

The Maine Turnpike Authority has approved a multimillion-dollar plan to increase capacity and replace three bridges along a portion of the turnpike outside Portland.

The authority’s board of directors approved the plan Sept. 6 to treat a portion of the route, Interstate 95, that runs from the town of Scarborough through north Portland. This 5-mile stretch will receive an additional lane in each direction.

Maine Turnpike Authority spokesperson Erin Courtney explained that the turnpike is three lanes in each direction from the state’s southern border to mile marker 44. This plan will expand the highway to three lanes from mile marker 44 to marker 49.3.

“That’s a very busy section of the turnpike,” Courtney said. “We have five interchanges in that 5-mile stretch. There’s a need for it because of the amount of people who are driving there, and with those interchanges, that tends to be kind of a chokepoint. There’s a lot of traffic weaving and merging there.”

There’s obvious safety and congestion mitigation benefits to widening that portion of the turnpike north of Portland.

Brian Parke, Maine Motor Transport Association

Brian Parke

Officials at Maine Turnpike Authority started discussing the project to expand the route’s capacity in the Portland area in 2005, but plans were put on hold when traffic numbers fell following the Great Recession of 2008. Courtney said that officials resumed discussions about the project in 2017. The Portland Area Mainline Needs Assessment, a report detailing what congestion projects would benefit the turnpike, was published Aug. 24.

The estimated cost for the project, which will be paid for by capital improvement bonds, ranges from $140 million to $160 million. Construction is expected to begin next year and end in 2022.

In addition to adding a lane, the Turnpike Authority also plans to rehabilitate three bridges that carry local roads over the turnpike and add concrete medians instead of guardrails.

Brian Parke, president of the Maine Motor Transport Association, said the turnpike is an important freight route for truck drivers hauling everything from potatoes and blueberries to eggs and dairy products.

Traffic alone the Maine Turnpike

Trucks in traffic on the Maine Turnpike. (Maine Turnpike Authority)

The state’s trucking association contributed comments while the Maine Turnpike Authority was developing plans for the route, and he commended the agency for the project.

“There’s obvious safety and congestion mitigation benefits to widening that portion of the turnpike north of Portland,” Parke said. “From our perspective, adding capacity’s also going to improve Maine’s economic prospects because trucking plays such a major role in moving the economy.”

According to the Maine Department of Transportation’s average annual daily traffic count last year, more than 38,000 vehicles traveled down the turnpike per day in Scarborough, which is 7 miles southwest of downtown Portland along I-95.

Courtney mentioned the upward-trending economy and the state’s tourist attractions as possible reasons for the increased traffic numbers. The Maine Office of Tourism’s 2017 report reflects a growing percentage in overnight leisure trips over the past couple of years. According to Courtney, turnpike traffic in the Portland area has steadily increased at a rate of over 3% a year.

“If it continues on at that rate, we’re going to be at a level of service below what customers should be getting by 2025,” Courtney said. “Our customers pay extra to travel on a safe, convenient, well-paved road. We’re always looking to make sure that these goals are met. We try to anticipate and resolve any problems before they reach a crisis level.”