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).
difference in perspective accounts for the world
of difference of opinion in discussions of an
Bob Merrill says traffic is off-putting for shoppers.
Ellsworth City Planner
Michele Gagnon says “bypass” is a simplistic approach.
do you think about the Bypass Issue?
Have you got more on your
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The complete series of Bypass stories will be archived here on
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
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
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
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)
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
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?
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
perspective, a bypass in Ellsworth is but part
of a solution that also should include four
lanes all the way to Brewer.
the traffic issue is right outside their door,
or right inside their pocketbooks.
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
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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
successfully avoided the issue to our own
detriment,” he said.
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.
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.
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
Defining the Problem
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.
conceded, after some reflection, that there
might be negative impact on the town from the
press of summer traffic.
inconvenience, not a problem,” he qualified.
some other business owners see that
inconvenience as basically good for business.
This is where perspective skews the issue.
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
that 25 percent of the business in his store
comes from summer tourist traffic passing
“If you have
a bypass, people don’t stop at all,” he said.
that traffic is bad, Povich said, “people in
this area are impatient.”
would cost a lot of money to save someone a
two-light wait, he said.
you want to jeopardize our business because of
business might have another assessment.
“I know that
my business isn’t driven by people going to
Acadia,” said Schweikert.
the idea that there’s an advantage to having all
the traffic bound for Mount Desert Island pass
through the center of town.
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,
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.
business again, and the traffic problem is
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.
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.
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
(Tom) Leavitt, a former city councilor and
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
those large retail stores are attractions that
draw shoppers who also visit small retail
businesses in town.
and others, the retail development must come
before a bypass is considered.
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.
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
a major retail center now, but they remember
their fledgling fear,” he said.
Ellsworth would still be successful if you could
deflect the traffic that doesn’t need to be
there,” he added.
Gårder, a University of
Maine professor who teaches
courses in transportation and road design,
shares Michaud’s view.
a big enough city to handle a bypass. It has
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.
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
“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
facto bypasses abound and are used by more and
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
But is it
really worth traveling more than 11 miles to
complete a five-mile trip?
conceded that he’s not sure that it always is,
but he does it anyway.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
of through traffic getting trapped in Ellsworth
is widely recognized and debated. But whose
problem is it?
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.”
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.
there is little sign of committed movement in
the direction of consensus.
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.
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.
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
much of the traffic driving through town is
headed for other destinations, he suggested,
it’s a question worth asking.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
executive director of Downeast and Acadia
Regional Tourism, said that “even with a bypass
you’re not going to relieve the traffic heading
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.
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.”
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.
really put anything into play as far as a
regional sit-down,” Michaud said.
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.
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
department is not willing to spend that sort of
energy, effort and money if it’s not going to be
supported,” he 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
On top of
that significant time delay, the project would
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.
Larry King in his doubts about securing the
state funding for such a project. Given that the
Bridge replacement is costing $84 million, “are voters likely to support this
kind of expenditure in this area again?” he
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
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.
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.
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
changes, coupled with this summer’s High Street
widening, will add to the traffic capacity of
will indicate just how many years the traffic
will keep flowing based on those improvements.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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
The key to
making any of it happen is in inclusive
planning, a process that hasn’t been part of
past bypass efforts.
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.
getting the pieces of the puzzle in place to
have the discussion,” Gagnon said.
proper, participants in the early stages of this
round of bypass and traffic discussions say this
one is different.
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