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Relieving I-295 traffic congestion between Scarborough and Brunswick.

Paul Kando

According to the Portland Press Herald (6/27/18), the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) has issued a report that includes near-term plans for improvements to I-295, such as pull-off lanes, message boards and longer approach ramps to relieve chokepoints and reduce the number of crashes. Traffic volume on the 28-mile stretch of highway between Scarborough and Brunswick is at or near an all-time high — 63,000 to 74,000 cars a day on average between Portland and Freeport. A 20% growth in volume is expected by 2040, by which time many sections of the highway will meet or exceed capacity at peak morning and afternoon travel times, creating pockets of gridlock.

Maine Central Locomotive
photo credit: American Rails

MDOT’s current recommendations include (listed by exits): lengthening northbound on ramp at South Portland, lengthening north and southbound on- and off-ramps at Falmouth, lengthening north and southbound on-ramps at Yarmouth, lengthening the southbound on-ramp at Freeport, and lengthening the northbound on-ramp at Brunswick. The MDOT is considering adding travel lanes through Portland by building on the median or allowing cars to travel on the shoulders during heavy traffic periods. It is also considering building auxiliary lanes between high-traffic exits like Forest Avenue and Franklin Street where cars could travel without merging into the travel lanes. The department also claims that “all options are on the table” and that any more traffic lanes to I-295 would be no solution, since local streets could not handle the additional traffic.

Obviously a lot of the traffic in question is commuter traffic to Portland. So why not focus on transporting commuters, instead of focusing on I-295?

The old Atlantic & St. Lawrence/Grand Trunk (ASL/GT) main rail line crosses the Pan Am Railway/Amtrak line at Yarmouth Junction. The combination of these two existing rail lines closely parallel I-295. Frequent commuter rail service (preferably light rail with freight-forwarding capacity) along this corridor — augmented by free parking at stations — could substantially reduce I-295 congestion. The same could be said for commuter trains between Portland and Biddeford (or even Wells) along Pan Am Railway trackage.

From Portland to Brunswick, but for a small (unused) section, the ASL/GT tracks are already owned by the state of Maine. With the fire-damaged viaduct and bridge across Back Cove rehabilitated, trains could again reach downtown Portland via the state-owned right-of-way now partly used by the Maine Narrow Gauge Railway.

Furthermore, tracks could eventually be (re)laid along the center of Commercial Street, connecting to existing Pan Am tracks at its south end, allowing train/light-rail service to circle the Portland Peninsula — all over existing tracks.

Opportunities also exist to eventually extend service — virtually all over existing state-owned tracks — from Yarmouth Jct. to Lewiston/Auburn over the ASL/GT line; from Brunswick to Wiscasset, Newcastle-Damariscotta, Warren, Thomaston and Rockland over the already rehabilitated “Rockland Branch”; from Brunswick (with a missing road overpass replaced at Richmond) to Gardiner, Hallowell, Augusta and Waterville over Maine Central’s “Lower Road”; and from Portland westward over the old Mountain Division to Westbrook, Cumberland Center, Windham, Sebago Lake, Cornish, Bridgton, Hiram, Fryeburg (and on to Conway, NH and beyond) — relieving traffic congestion along US 302.

Why even think of beefing up a crowded highway when parallel rail lines already exist — and are far less costly to maintain than roads? Opening rail corridors could also reduce the number of heavy trucks that now damage highways. Also, railways are easy to electrify — a huge plus from an environmental standpoint.