1990
7,000
Average trips per day on Water Street.
Source: Maine Department of Transportation
1993
9,000
Average trips per day on Water Street.
Source: Maine D
OT
2003
11,380
Average trips per day on Water Street.
Source: Maine
DOT (latest available)
Consensus Anyone?? The Road from Here

By Aaron Porter; Part 4 of 4 Parts

ELLSWORTH — When it comes to traffic, perspective is everything.

It depends on whether you are behind a planner’s desk, behind a shop counter or behind the wheel on High Street (and behind schedule).

The difference in perspective accounts for the world of difference of opinion in discussions of an Ellsworth bypass.

Ellsworth businessman Bob Merrill says traffic is off-putting for shoppers.

Ellsworth City Planner Michele Gagnon says “bypass” is a simplistic approach.

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The complete series of Bypass stories will be archived here on www.ellsworthamerican.com

Part 1: Examined the 70-year history of the bypass debate in Ellsworth. Since 1933, a familiar theme has been downtown businesses’ resistance to plans to divert traffic — and potential customers — from the commercial district.

Part 2: Recounted the debate, misgivings and advocacy that preceded the creation, in 1962, of bypasses around downtown Belfast and Damariscotta. Bottom line today: It was painful at first but proved to be the right move.

Part 3: Examined the situations in Camden and Wiscasset, two towns that missed out on opportunities for bypasses. All agree that downtown traffic is thick and slow as a result — but there's something less than consensus about whether that's a bad thing.

Part 4: What Does the Future Hold for Ellsworth?


The City of Ellsworth intends to make Route 3 one-way from its intersection with Route 1 to Myrick Street. The road improvements will allow additional commercial development and traffic on Beckwith Hill. (click map for larger PDF)

STAFF GRAPHIC BY CATHERINE MCKINNEY

  

Involve a few local business people and the discussion becomes more snarled than the traffic.

Do we need more commercial development before alternative traffic routes are built? Or do we need better traffic flow before more development can take place?

Should a bypass be planned before existing routes are maxed out? Are we concerned about the increased traffic in neighborhood streets as drivers seek relief from High Street traffic?

If we do nothing, what will happen? If we plan a bypass, is it likely to be built?

For observers focused on the big picture, the symptoms and causes of Ellsworth’s transportation tie-ups are spread among three counties.

From his home in Jonesport, Sanford Kelley, chairman of the Downeast Route 1 Corridor Committee, said the region has a traffic problem all the way from Brewer to Ellsworth.

It is a problem that affects shopping, business and tourist traffic deep into Washington County.

From his perspective, a bypass in Ellsworth is but part of a solution that also should include four lanes all the way to Brewer.

For others, the traffic issue is right outside their door, or right inside their pocketbooks.

From behind the counter at Mike’s Country Store on Water Street, owner Eddie Povich glances out his window and says there is no traffic problem in Ellsworth.

From among the studied eclecticism downstairs in the Grasshopper Shop on Ellsworth’s Main Street, owner Ken Schweikert said, “It’s getting to the point where it’s obvious that the traffic is actually detrimental to business.”

Seafood dealer Rob Bauer lives in Blue Hill and buys fish on Mount Desert Island. “I don’t think the traffic is the problem. I think it’s the light at Wal-Mart,” said Bauer.

Local traffic backups are a constant problem for him. It’s part humor and part wishful thinking when he says he has patented a giant pogo stick that will allow trucks to hop over the city.

 As head of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, Costas Christ sees traffic problems as planning problems.

Mount Desert Island is the destination for millions of visitors every year. He warned that traffic improvements shouldn’t be “replacing a sense of authenticity with generic highway development.”

Splitting time between Augusta and his home in Trenton, State Senator Dennis Damon (D-Hancock County), who serves as co-chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Transportation, lamented how long Ellsworth’s traffic problems have gone without attention. To him, the problem is a product of delayed attention.

“We have successfully avoided the issue to our own detriment,” he said.

Ellsworth City Council chair and local contractor Larry King looks at the bypass issue through the eyes of a political pragmatist with an understanding of state transportation bonds.

“Nobody in southern Maine is going to vote to spend $100 million in Ellsworth,” he said.

“Bypass is a simplistic word and approach to a huge problem,” said Ellsworth City Planner Michele Gagnon, poring over maps and traffic studies in her second floor office at city hall.

“The last thing we need to do is foist an undesired project on a community,” said Fred Michaud, policy development specialist from the Maine Department of Transportation in Augusta after running through an array of possibilities for the future of Ellsworth traffic.

But given the diverse opinions and unavoidable political vagaries, it’s hard for Michaud or anyone else to say what the most likely future scenario is for Ellsworth.

Defining the Problem

While most anyone familiar with the area can agree that there is a problem, planning to solve it can’t get far until the problem is identified.

Even Povich conceded, after some reflection, that there might be negative impact on the town from the press of summer traffic.

“It’s an inconvenience, not a problem,” he qualified.

Povich and some other business owners see that inconvenience as basically good for business. This is where perspective skews the issue.

Keeping Mount Desert Island-bound traffic moving on a bypass would be a disaster as far as Povich is concerned, just as surely as it would be a welcome relief for commuters to and from Mount Desert Island.

“I like the idea of traffic coming by my door twice: once on the way to Acadia and once on the way back,” he said.

He estimated that 25 percent of the business in his store comes from summer tourist traffic passing through Ellsworth.

“If you have a bypass, people don’t stop at all,” he said.

To complaints that traffic is bad, Povich said, “people in this area are impatient.”

A bypass would cost a lot of money to save someone a two-light wait, he said.

“Why would you want to jeopardize our business because of that?”

But another business might have another assessment.

“I know that my business isn’t driven by people going to Acadia,” said Schweikert.

He rejects the idea that there’s an advantage to having all the traffic bound for Mount Desert Island pass through the center of town.

Such visitors are not likely to stop to shop when they’re only a half-hour from their destination, he added. However, shoppers from surrounding towns will be discouraged from coming to Ellsworth if the streets are clogged with island-bound traffic, he said.

And his business relies on those local year-round and extended summer residents wanting to shop in Ellsworth, he said. As it is, “people don’t come here to shop because they can’t stand the traffic,” he said.

Change the business again, and the traffic problem is assessed anew.

“There’s a bigger volume of traffic than ever before,” said Bob Merrill of Merrill Furniture on High Street. He said he’s seen increases in transient tourist, long-term summer resident and year-round resident traffic. While he doesn’t complain that business is soft because of it, “we hear people don’t come here in summer because of traffic,” he said.

Merrill looks beyond the customers coming through his doors. To him the traffic problem is a question of convenience and appeal for shoppers using the city as a retail center. While traffic isn’t a huge impediment to business right now, he said it is becoming one.

“You can’t look into the future but you can get a pretty good feel for how things are going to go,” he said. As for a bypass, “I think they should get things moving now,” he said.

That way, the city could be developing as a more mature retail center at the same time that a bypass is in the works. Establishing a retail base that can compete with Bangor and Brewer for shopping traffic is as essential as a bypass that would relieve traffic in the area, Merrill said. The two must come hand in hand.

He added that he wouldn’t have called for a bypass 10 years ago because the city wasn’t close enough to being a retail center that would draw shoppers to town.

C. Thomas (Tom) Leavitt, a former city councilor and retired Main Street business owner, said he thinks it might be too late for a bypass. Of the 1970 bypass proposal, he said, “we should have grabbed it and run with it.”

Now “people are getting through here as quickly as they can. They’re not going to stop and shop,” he said. He said he believes we have waited too long.

When Leavitt talks about lost business, he’s not thinking about T-shirt sales to transient tourists. Like Schweikert and Merrill, he’s concerned that traffic is keeping Mainers away.

“I have a lot of friends in Machias. They don’t even come to Ellsworth anymore,” he lamented. Instead, they head right to Bangor.

Jonesport’s Kelley confirmed that trend. He said a lot of Downeast business and shopping traffic takes routes 192 and 193 to Route 9 and on to Bangor, entirely avoiding Ellsworth.

Is it traffic or is it the variety of stores that spurs Downeast shoppers to forsake Ellsworth for Bangor?

According to King, both elements play a role. He said Ellsworth has a traffic problem a few months out of the year that warrants some attention. But he also warned, “you can’t bypass a community if it hasn’t maximized its retail potential.”

Ironically, it has been lack of traffic capacity that has limited the addition of some so-called big box stores that arguably could help maximize Ellsworth’s retail potential by serving as magnets for shoppers now traveling to Bangor.

In 2001, $3.5 million in road improvements required of the developer by the state killed a proposal to build a Wal-Mart Supercenter on Route 3. Developers on Myrick Street have wrangled for two years over costs for road improvements required to add large retail stores in addition to Home Depot.

Certainly not all residents and not many independent merchants relish the idea of more big box stores in town, but to Micki Sumpter, executive director of the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce, the addition of some of those stores is vital in the competition with Bangor.

She said those large retail stores are attractions that draw shoppers who also visit small retail businesses in town.

To Sumpter and others, the retail development must come before a bypass is considered.

To DOT’s Michaud, Ellsworth already is a mature commercial center that is suffering because of its traffic problem. 

“Back in the 1960s, when a bypass was first proposed for Ellsworth, High Street was just starting to become a commercial center. Now it’s a mature business center and really a regional business center,” he said.

Michaud said the 2002 City Council votes not to put the idea of a bypass, or even a bypass study, to Ellsworth voters was the product of a lack of confidence.

“Ellsworth is a major retail center now, but they remember their fledgling fear,” he said.

“I think Ellsworth would still be successful if you could deflect the traffic that doesn’t need to be there,” he added.

Per Erik Gårder, a University of Maine professor who teaches courses in transportation and road design, shares Michaud’s view.

“Ellsworth is a big enough city to handle a bypass. It has become a Mecca for attracting people from other coastal communities. It would still serve enough of that destination traffic.…I see no reason why Ellsworth would lose commercial activity because of a bypass,” he said.

But there’s more to a city than businesses.

“It isn’t just the concern of store owners,” Sen. Damon said. He looked to the spillover of traffic onto side streets and back roads as an unintended consequence of delaying a bypass or other traffic reorganization.

“What I see every single day is that folks who live in the area have sought alternative routes to the detriment of those communities,” he said.

Talk to any regular commuter to Hinckley Yachts, The Jackson Laboratory or other major employers on Mount Desert Island and it’s obvious that problems with High Street traffic aren’t confined to High Street.

Favorite de facto bypasses abound and are used by more and more drivers. 

Given the geographical spread of his seafood business, Bauer runs into traffic and improvises alternative routes daily. He uses the back routes and secondary roads that many local commuters frequent: Water Street, Bayside Road, Goose Cove Road, Washington Junction Road. But he also takes some more extreme measures.

As a rule, if the traffic approaching Ellsworth from Bar Harbor on Route 3 is backed up to the old Cheese House, he takes a right on Jordan River Road (Route 204) — the route through Lamoine — turning left onto the Mud Creek Road, then left onto Route 1 in Hancock, Bauer then skirts downtown Ellsworth, using the Washington Junction Road.

But is it really worth traveling more than 11 miles to complete a five-mile trip?

Bauer conceded that he’s not sure that it always is, but he does it anyway.

But those alternative routes are getting backed up as well. Route 230, which starts at Water Street and runs to Trenton, had reached 11,380 vehicle trips on an average day in 2003, according to the most recent state traffic data. In 1990, the annual daily average was 7,000 trips per day; 9,000 in 1993.

During that same period, High Street traffic fell from 23,000 annual daily average in 1990, to 21,000 in 1993, then rose to 24,760 in 2003.

Michaud said the numbers are getting to a point on some secondary routes that the state is considering categorizing them as major collector roads. Indeed, Washington Junction Road already has changed designation.

While such a change will bring more state money to the table to maintain the routes, it also means those roads likely will continue to receive higher traffic volume whether residents along the routes want it or not.

Michaud said there’s a possibility that Washington Junction could become part of Route 1. But he stressed that such a change wouldn’t be made without community discussion and support.

That could be hard to come by.

The Curse of the Crossroads

The problem of through traffic getting trapped in Ellsworth is widely recognized and debated. But whose problem is it?

“It’s not Ellsworth’s traffic problem,” said Gary Fortier, a nine-year veteran of the City Council. “If we were able to cut Mount Desert Island off at the bridge and float it across the ocean, Ellsworth wouldn’t have a traffic problem.”

His observation points to a truth raised by numerous individuals as the complexity of the traffic problem dawns on them: It’s a regional problem in need of a regional solution.

However, there is little sign of committed movement in the direction of consensus.

With the exception of personal contacts between planners in Ellsworth and Mount Desert Island, and among area chambers of commerce, there’s not much in the way of regional discussion going on about how traffic should flow around Ellsworth.

That’s a problem because, as Fortier pointed out, even were Ellsworth to come up with a solution to current traffic problems, there’s nothing prohibiting one of the “downstream” communities from growing in a way that could nullify steps taken by Ellsworth to increase traffic capacity.

He called not only for a regional approach to transportation planning, but also a sharing of the expense among communities in the region.

“No state effort has been made to look at traffic as a regional issue,” Council Chairman King said. And when it comes to improvements to traffic flow through the city, “Why should Ellsworth pick up the tab?’

Considering much of the traffic driving through town is headed for other destinations, he suggested, it’s a question worth asking.

The most recent destination-specific data from the Department of Transportation is from 1992, but it shows that 55 percent of cars coming into Ellsworth were passing through without a stop.

The most common assumption is that much traffic is bound for Mount Desert Island for work or play. However, Costas Christ, whose job it is to think about business in Bar Harbor, was relatively unconcerned about the flow of visitors through Ellsworth. His concern is the island.

He’s focused on the need to keep unneeded traffic off the island by establishing a transportation hub on the mainland that would allow visitors to park and take the free Island Explorer buses anywhere they might need to go on the island. He said he hopes any new route approaching the island is “going to enhance the character and integrity of the communities we live in.”

He doesn’t see Ellsworth as a bottleneck that’s limiting traffic to Bar Harbor. Nor has he seen much of a regional approach to addressing traffic planning, although he said he’d like to see one.

Fred Cook, executive director of Downeast and Acadia Regional Tourism, said that “even with a bypass you’re not going to relieve the traffic heading down to Mount Desert Island.” As for the Downeast region where he lives, Cook said many residents are starting to look at traffic-bound Ellsworth the way they do Bar Harbor: as a place you don’t go in the summer.

He said he’s seen no serious effort to spawn a regional discussion about traffic.

“Maybe we could start calling for a symposium to try and lead, but people might see that as self-serving,” King said of Ellsworth. “In that sense, being the crossroads of Downeast Maine has been a curse.”

According to Michaud, a regional approach will be essential to any successful effort to create a bypass around Ellsworth. But while the state has started a regional transportation planning and coordination effort to the west with the Gateway-1 project, there is no similar effort under way in Hancock County. The DOT doesn’t plan to bring Gateway-1 to Ellsworth for at least five years.

“We haven’t really put anything into play as far as a regional sit-down,” Michaud said.

So although the state will require a regional approach if a bypass proposal is to even get off the ground, there’s no state effort to coordinate regional discussion that could lead to any proposal.

Damon said that, from his position as a legislator, the need for regional buy-in is vital to any proposed traffic project getting the essential support of the legislative delegation in Augusta.

“The department is not willing to spend that sort of energy, effort and money if it’s not going to be supported,” he said.

Looking Forward

Michaud said the planning timeline on a bypass is 12 to 15 years before ground is broken. And that’s assuming there was regional support for the effort.

On top of that significant time delay, the project would be costly.

Dale Doughty, assistant director of the DOT Bureau of Planning, said an estimate for an Ellsworth bypass would be impossible to give when there is not yet a proposed route. For the sake of scale, he said similar bypass proposals fall between $40 million and $70 million.

Damon echoed Larry King in his doubts about securing the state funding for such a project. Given that the Waldo-Hancock Bridge replacement is costing $84 million, “are voters likely to support this kind of expenditure in this area again?” he asked.

“It could take literally decades to get the money,” the DOT’s Herb Thomson confirmed. And at this point, the department isn’t pushing for a bypass. Michaud said since the City Council voted to not even put the question of a bypass study to voters in 2002, the department hasn’t been pursuing the bypass alternative.

“If there’s a shift that does support it, then DOT will take a look at it,” he said. But he hasn’t seen that yet.

Even if local sentiment had undergone such a sea change, federal environmental assessments that must take place before any large project goes ahead require consideration of maximizing all existing routes before adding new ones. Doughty said the potential impacts on the environment are weighed against the impacts on developed areas in that time consuming assessment.

There’s also land to be purchased if a bypass is to be built. The route originally proposed in the 1960s cuts through what is now expensive and developed land on the Union River and on Beckwith Hill. More delay will likely mean more development, higher property values and consequently fewer options for any bypass proposed in the future.

In the meantime, there’s work going on to widen High Street, and DOT planning to change the flow of traffic on Beckwith Hill, Myrick Street and Route 1. The most recent proposals would make Route 3 between the intersection with Route 1 and Myrick Street one way; Myrick Street would become a state road and Route 1 would continue pretty much as it does today. Michaud said a letter from planning consultants Gorrill Palmer should give the City Council a projection of how much time

Those changes, coupled with this summer’s High Street widening, will add to the traffic capacity of the city.

That capacity will indicate just how many years the traffic will keep flowing based on those improvements.

“I honestly believe people will be amazed,” Council Chairman King said, adding that those changes will be adequate to relieve traffic congestion for the near future. “They will be what exists 20 years from now,” he said.

Michaud, who said the state has been involved with these studies at the city’s request, wasn’t as optimistic. He said the alternatives to maximize the traffic flow using improvements to existing routes would eventually have to include Bayside, Washington Junction and Beechland roads.

“We might find we can buy 25 years,” he said. But once all those routes have been used to their maximum capacity the question of a bypass is likely to loom again.

“All it does is move the bottleneck up to Beechland,” Merrill said of the proposed changes on Beckwith Hill. But he doesn’t dismiss them as a diversion from planning for the bypass he believes ultimately will be necessary.

Merrill, and many others who think a bypass is needed, see the imminent improvements to the city’s routes as essential changes in preparation for the addition of a new route.

“We have to maximize what we have,” said Gagnon. Only when in-town traffic flows are maximized should a bypass be considered. She pointed to a bypass around Quebec City as one that ties in well to the downtown streets where visitors want to stop.

The key to making any of it happen is in inclusive planning, a process that hasn’t been part of past bypass efforts.

“People have to know that they are part of the process,” Gagnon said. That includes residents and business owners from the region. And while they haven’t all been included in a formal dialogue yet, there’s still time while some of the time-buying upgrades are being constructed.

“We’re just getting the pieces of the puzzle in place to have the discussion,” Gagnon said.

In Ellsworth proper, participants in the early stages of this round of bypass and traffic discussions say this one is different.

“They’re not as scared because we are planning,” Sumpter said of the city’s merchants who speak of a bypass. “People talk about it and they don’t get so angry.”

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