Augusta looks to expanding an interstate exit to help improve safety and unleash growth in the local economy
By Douglas Rooks
If all goes well, within a year or two the capital area could be well on its way to adding capacity off Interstate 95 that would allow construction of more than 2.5 million feet of retail, commercial and institutional space. It also would relieve what has come to be a growing bottleneck at Exit 112, the intersection of I-95 with Route 27 north and Civic Center Drive.
Burgeoning growth in the north Augusta area, extending outward from the University of Maine at Augusta campus and the Civic Center, has been one of the biggest transformations of the capital since early the 1950s when Western Avenue first became a commercial zone. But the expansion of the Marketplace of Augusta and business parks north on Route 27 have challenged the area’s existing road capacity. Any further expansion could trigger major infrastructure costs for developers, who under state law would bear responsibility for increasing capacity – and are understandably reluctant to shoulder that responsibility alone.
In many instances, such a situation would lead to a lengthy period of contention, but in Augusta, the process of addressing congestion could be considerably smoother, thanks to a planning study funded jointly by the Augusta Board of Trade, the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce and MaineDOT.
“I can’t think of another instance in which a community stepped forward to deal with congestion in such a coordinated way,” said John Melrose, president of Maine Tomorrow, whose firm collaborated with Gorrill Palmer Consulting Engineers on a preliminary study, released in September, Augusta North Connections: A Comprehensive Area Traffic Movement Solution.
Asked why the Kennebec Chamber stepped forward to fund a planning study, Peter Thompson, its president, said, “It was a clear community priority, something that’s needed if Augusta is to continue to grow.”
MaineDOT is involved because of its responsibility to keep the interstate system functioning efficiently. Even with new, coordinated traffic signals and turning lanes, Exit 112 is at capacity and the area faces the real possibility of traffic backing up the exit and entrance ramps – a clearly hazardous situation, according to MaineDOT engineer Darryl Belz.
More attention has been drawn to the area because of the recent announcement of MaineGeneral Health, that operates three hospital campuses in Augusta and Waterville, that it plans to consolidate inpatient operations in North Augusta, adjacent to the Alfond Cancer Care Center that opened in July 2007.
While the cancer center has earned rave reviews, it is difficult to access from the interstate. So when MaineGeneral announced its plan for a new campus, to open by 2014-15, planners began focusing on Exit 113.
Chuck Hays, CEO of MaineGeneral’s hospitals, said discussion about what to do to unlock a traffic bottleneck around the interstate exits began about two years ago. For the hospital to be built, better access to I-95 and better traffic circulation in the area was essential.
“When we looked at expanding Exit 112, it was clear there were a lot of problems,” he said, because the interchange was already at capacity.
Civic Center Drive (Route 27) has already been widened for previous projects, and couldn’t provide any more lanes as it passes under I-95. And if a new, wider overpass were to be built, deeper support beams would be required and the I-95 mainline grades would have to be altered. Those expenses alone made the Augusta groups and MaineDOT pay closer attention to Exit 113.
Built as part of the “third bridge” project that brought a new crossing of the Kennebec River to Augusta, Exit 113 is currently only a two-way interchange, routing traffic from I-95 directly to Route 3 heading toward Belfast. Before the project’s completion in November 2004, coastal traffic had to navigate Western Avenue, two traffic circles, and Bangor Street, adding measurably to congestion.
Now, preliminary studies show how Exit 113 could be expanded for full access, with new ramps from the interstate leading to roundabouts just east and west of the highway.
Roundabouts are small traffic circles that operate at lower speeds than larger circles, like the Cony and Memorial traffic circles at opposite ends of Augusta’s Memorial Bridge. The smaller traffic circles found increasing favor with transportation planners in recent years. By avoiding stops for traffic lights, a roundabout allows for greater traffc capacity. The new, smaller traffic circles planned for Exit 113 will have a smaller turning radius to keep driver speeds down. That will make them safer than older, larger traffic circles.
New Hampshire has built several new roundabouts in recent years, and they are on the drawing board for several local and state projects in Maine.
To make an expanded Exit 113 work, plans call for a connector road leading to Route 27 to the north. That could be either an upgrade to Old Belgrade Road, or a new road constructed on a parallel line. At this point, the new road seems to be no more costly and would create fewer conflicts with existing uses, according to Roger Pomerlau, the landowner whose property had been the site of the Marketplace at Augusta’s development and expansion.
Pomerlau points out that the Department of Public Safety headquarters, located at the old Digital Equipment plant, now the Maine Commerce Center, would have better access to I-95 via a connector road. “It’s a straight shot for one of the most important uses in the area,” he said. “In a sense, this is one of the most important interstate connections in the entire state.”
City government has been following the plan with keen interest, although because state and federal routes are involved, its role is limited, said Augusta’s economic development director, Mike Duguay. His office is providing a staff member to work on planning, though, and that should move things forward more rapidly.
“There were several different variables, all of that pointed us to a particular solution,” Duguay said. Not the least of those variables was the loss of at least one major commercial investment in the area. A proposed expansion of the Marketplace at Augusta, known as Phase 3b, was tabled by the planning board after state studies showed it would exceed infrastructure capacity even with planned improvements at Exit 112.
That development could come back for review, if capacity is again expanded, though Peter Thompson noted that it will be some time before retail growth resumes after the current recession.
Another variable has been growth at the Augusta Commerce Center, after the sale of the 200-acre campus, most recently owned by SCI, to Mattson Development. Further development, however, is also on hold pending resolution of the Exit 112 capacity problem.
While the hospital focused new attention on the issue, it is only one piece of the puzzle in generating room for growth, Duguay said.
It’s a prominent piece, though. By December, Chuck Hays said, MaineGeneral will file plans for a Certificate of Need with the state to create a 230-bed hospital that would cost more than $300 million. The state has encouraged consolidation of hospital facilities, and MaineGeneral would close its Chestnut Street campus in Augusta and its Seton Unit in Waterville. The Thayer Unit in Waterville would be converted to a medical center offering outpatient treatment.
Unlike an earlier plan to consolidate the hospitals in Sidney, this one seems to be finding favor in Augusta and some support in Waterville, as well. MaineGeneral said the new campus is essential if the hospital is to attract top physicians and compete effectively with Maine’s other major hospitals in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor.
High priority designation
The North Augusta project still faces challenges concerning timing and funding. Under the most aggressive timetable, engineering work could start in 2010 and construction in 2011. “It would be great to get the new interchange open by the time the hospital construction starts,” Mike Duguay said. “That way all the construction vehicles could use the new interchange and not end up on city streets.”
For that to happen, the project would need a high-priority designation, and a request has been forwarded to Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s office. But much also depends on when the reauthorization of the multi-year federal transportation program occurs. Extensions of the current law, SAFETEA-LU, from periods of three to 18 months are being considered by Congress.
Cost may be less of an issue, surprisingly. Construction costs are estimated at $11 million – $6 million for the interchange expansion and $5 million for the connector road, Darryl Belz said. He added that right-of-way costs could be significant, but have not yet been estimated. In addition to federal funding, each new development in the area would shoulder part of the cost. By contrast, the Route 3/Third Bridge project cost $32 million.
One plus is that there doesn’t seem to be a significant impact on wetlands that would trigger a full National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, though a few vernal pools were identified during the original Third Bridge study.
Belz has made a number of public presentations to civic and city groups, and so far, the reaction has been largely favorable. For the connector, MaineDOT would acquire a corridor that would accommodate expansion to four lanes, if eventually necessary. The roundabouts would be built with two traffic lanes, but initially striped to allow just one lane. “That’s the best way to do it. You’ve built in expansion room without the need to go back for more construction,” Belz said.
In addition to road expansion, the project might also spur a significant expansion of transit use in the area. The new Concord Coach Lines bus terminal is nearby, and the city is considering expanding public bus routes to connect with the airport and downtown.
Unlike many congestion relief projects, this one has so far generated a surprising amount of agreement among the major players, and relatively little concern among the public. “From the very beginning, it was clear that we were working toward a common goal,” Chuck Hays said. “Everyone kept an open mind, and we were focused on what would be best for the region, not just an individual project. It’s been quite an exciting process so far.”
“It’s a model for how different levels of government and interest groups can sit down and come up with an answer that makes sense for everyone,” Melrose said. “It’s the kind of plan that meets all the tests.”