ELLSWORTH — There is no avoiding the crush of cars on Main, Water and High streets whether it is high summer or the weekday rush hours. And right now, sitting in a line of stationary or slowly moving cars may hit harder after a pandemic year where people mostly stayed put.
While little can be done about hordes of out-of-staters headed for Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, help is on the way for winter residents stuck at a High Street traffic light despite a scarcity of cars.
The City Council approved $10,000 to complement a software package originally installed in 2018. That software times eight High Street traffic signals, starting at Merrill Lane, based on the traffic pattern. But the issue, according to the city’s IT systems administrator, Jason Ingalls, is that the timing plan was based on traffic volumes from August of 2017.
“This is why you’re sitting at the Hannaford’s light for five minutes in mid-winter,” Ingalls said.
From his office in City Hall, Ingalls watches cars inch through the intersection of some of Ellsworth’s busiest streets. But he is not a traffic engineer, so he is not the person to decide on the timing of the lights.
“I’m an IT guy. I know how to wire it all up and have [the lights] talk to each other,” said Ingalls. “I’m not a traffic guy.”
The lights “talk” to one another by a fiber optics and radio network installed by the city. The newly approved funds will secure engineering services to develop updated and additional timing plans. A proposal from engineering consultants Sebago Technics is in the works, and Ingalls hopes to review it in early July “and hopefully put them to work on it right away.” The engineers will be able to remotely change the timing plan from their South Portland office, Ingalls said.
Timing plans can be set for specific times of the year. Or the software can evaluate the current demand and select the appropriate timing plan that best matches the current volume, Ingalls explained.
It is no surprise that the highest volume of traffic is found on High Street or that there is a “dramatic change” — in Ingalls’ words — in traffic patterns between summer and winter. And despite a pandemic traffic respite, the number of cars driving in, around and through Ellsworth is on the rise, based on both city and Maine Department of Transportation traffic counts.
“If you have the right software and the right signal, you should make it as adaptive as you can,” said Rick Lyles. Lyles sits on the Planning Board and was a major contributor to the Ellsworth Green Plan’s chapter on transportation but commented from his professional perspective as a planning and transportation engineer. “Sometimes, if the traffic that’s out there overpowers the signal’s ability to deal with that traffic, you’re kind of up against the wall anyway. It can make the best of a situation, but it doesn’t make the situation good.”
But traffic light software helps with just one aspect of High Street traffic: vehicles. “We need to look at High Street in the context not only of moving traffic but also in how we facilitate pedestrian movement,” Lyles said. “How do we facilitate bike paths and that sort of thing? And how do we make that street more livable? The problem is High Street serves multiple purposes.”