Ellsworth seeks grant for upgrades to broadband, traffic signal system



ELLSWORTH — The city submitted an application for $205,349 in grant funding from the Northern Border Regional Commission (NRBC) on Friday.

The proposal seeks to improve broadband connectivity and upgrade traffic systems in an effort to reduce congestion at the intersection of Main and Water streets.

The total cost of the proposed project would be $410,698, and requires 50 percent matching funds, which already have been secured, said City Manager David Cole.

The Maine Department of Transportation’s Business Partnership Initiative has committed to providing the bulk of the match, $126,536; Network Maine, a University of Maine initiative, has agreed to provide $7,519. The remaining $71,294 would come from the city.

Ellsworth city councilors approved the funding at a meeting on May 4 (it is yet to be determined where in the budget the money would be drawn from).

If secured, the majority of the funding ($233,140) will be put toward improvements to the city’s traffic system.

“We won’t be building new roadway,” Cole said.

“It’s not about building your way out of traffic situations; it’s about managing your way through.”

The project would include “lane modification and related pedestrian improvements” intended to “relieve congestion and improve pedestrian safety,” according to a memo from City Planner Michele Gagnon. The project proposes to shorten the pedestrian crossing distance, lengthen the time of the crosswalk signal and bring the crossing into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other fixes.

The proposal also seeks to add one mile of broadband infrastructure to the city’s fiber optic system to create a backup loop in the event of technical issues. Constructing an additional mile of cable is projected to cost $22,558.

The proposed modifications would create “redundancy,” Gagnon wrote, which is “necessary for industries that demand near-perfect uptime for the sending and receiving of data, such as finance, health care, laboratories and cloud-based software services. Basically, it is needed for any industries where a loss of data could be potentially catastrophic.”

Ellsworth celebrated the “lighting” of the city’s three miles of fiber optic cable in August 2017. Fiber optic cables transmit light rather than electrical signals, allowing information to be sent much faster.

The three-mile cable runs from the Union River Center for Innovation on Water Street to State Street, behind City Hall and over to Oak Street and then out High Street to Beckwith Hill, with a hub station on Water Street. The proposed addition would create a loop connecting back to the center via Washington Street.

The project is known as community-owned broadband infrastructure, or COBI. Internet service providers, or ISPs, often do not have the incentive to build the expensive physical infrastructure (cables, wireless-access points) necessary to deliver high-speed internet to a region, which has been a persistent problem in the expansion of internet services in rural areas.

Under the COBI system, a municipality builds and owns the physical infrastructure, which providers sign up to use, the intention being to create competition among providers and lower prices. GWI is the only provider in Ellsworth at the moment, said Cole, but there is space for others.

The upgrades to COBI also would reinforce the Ellsworth Intelligent Traffic Signal System (ITSS), Gagnon wrote. Some of the funding would go toward addressing hardware and software incompatibilities that would allow city information technology staff to receive alerts of traffic signal failures in real time, improve traffic counts and allow remote access for programming.

An average of 24,298 vehicles per day passed over High Street in 2017, according to a traffic camera at the Ellsworth Shopping Center. Traffic was heaviest in August and peaked on June 30, when 36,042 vehicles passed over High Street, according to Gagnon.

“This is literally the smart way to approach this problem,” said Cole, riffing on the name of the system, which is known as “smart infrastructure.”

“There’s not enough money to build your way out of congestion.”

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Southwest Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]