The headlines are spreading: Cadillac Summit Closed, Route One Traffic Backed-up for Miles, Route IA Closed by Accident, Trenton Bridge Accident Closes Route 3, and on they go. The economic success that comes with being a top destination for summer tourists, and the transportation grid necessary to support our service economy, are being heavily impacted by congestion, delays and an infrastructure ill prepared for increased use.
This past Friday evening — at the height of usual rush-hour traffic — an accident on outer State Street created grid-lock all over Ellsworth, grinding traffic to a halt for too many drivers. Secondary streets, not designed for thru-traffic, were full of stopped cars. Left-turning traffic clogged intersections. Fire department and police staff were forced to become traffic moderators rather than first responders.
This will only get worse, as the MDOT data proves what drivers sense: Ellsworth is full of choke-points and busy intersections that create traffic issues.
While Ellsworth has benefited from several recent road improvement projects, these have been surface projects that improve travel comfort, but do little to ease congestion and accommodate heavier volumes of traffic. Anybody caught in the numerous delays created by the traffic light for the new high school entrance can attest to that dilemma.
The politics of transportation and highways have hurt Ellsworth. Starting in the late 1960’s, MDOT officials approached the city about transportation options, including a bypass around the downtown. State officials were summarily rejected then, and again almost 20 years later when the need became even more evident. While the subject of bypasses has generated heated passion for decades here in Maine, ask the towns of Yarmouth, Freeport, Bath, Damariscotta, Rockland, and Belfast if they would like to return to their own downtowns again becoming Route 1 traffic corridors. We know the answer is “no,” just as we now know that the towns that have balked at bypasses — Wiscasset, Camden and Ellsworth — have become infamous for their traffic delays and travel aggravations.
Given the need for traffic bypasses, and with nine intersections in Ellsworth that have more traffic than any intersections in Aroostook County, frustrated travelers Downeast are left to wonder why first Caribou and now Presque Isle now are going to have bypass routes around their downtowns. Meanwhile, gridlock issues persist along the more heavily traveled Route 1.
Traffic congestion takes a toll on commerce as well as the affected neighborhoods used as alternative cross-streets. Stymied drivers hurry and take chances.
Is Ellsworth ready and prepared to discuss traffic options? What will the city and its streets be like in five years should Acadia growth continue on the current path? How will the city cultivate its economic growth message further if driving here continues to be a challenge?
Community leaders need to first recognize that Ellsworth, despite its many virtues, is currently an obstacle for motorists looking to go elsewhere. Leaders in Bath and Belfast recognized that their towns could become destinations once relieved from through traffic.
Long-sighted vision is needed. Much of Hancock County’s economic livelihood rests largely in the hands of the tourist traffic. Maximizing each visitor’s experience while improving convenient travel for residents the other seven months of the year will take earnest planning, cooperation with state officials and a commitment to avoid the consequences now confronted on a regular basis.
It’s time for Ellsworth’s leaders to exercise their right to push for a bypass plan.