SCARBOROUGH – In the past year, Scarborough has completed one major intersection project along U.S. Route 1 at Haigis Parkway, and, on Monday, started another at Dunstan Corner. Now, the town is turning its eyes to Oak Hill, where two previous attempts to ease traffic congestion failed to gain Town Council support in 2006.
At that time, a study showed a 32.1 percent surge in “peak hour” traffic through the intersection of routes 1 and 114 with Black Point Road. Shortly thereafter, an ad hoc committee presented a plan to build two connector roads to draw vehicles away from the busy intersection, a proposal that would have cost $10.4 million before land takings, utility fees and legal costs. The Town Council rejected that idea, as well as an alternative measure, and Oak Hill was left untouched while attention was focused on easier nuts to crack.
“At the time, for a handful of reasons, that idea was not ripe and so the town moved on to what was then second, third and forth priorities,” said Town Planner Dan Bacon.
Since then, however, the town Planning Board has approved an 81-unit assisted living complex on Black Point Road, less than 300 feet from the Oak Hill intersection, where the study reported 15,000-21,000 cars pass daily, depending on the season. Although the senior housing project, to be built by Wegman Cos. of Rochester, N.Y., is predicted to have a “minimal” impact on daily car counts, a Friends of Oak Hill opposition group sprang up, highlighting continuing issues at the intersection.
“The problems don’t go away,” said Town Manager Tom Hall. “They just get more expensive.”
With that in mind, the Town Council created a new transportation committee, which held its first official meeting Sept. 26. The seven-member group includes Councilor Richard Sullivan, Planning Board member Ron Mazer, long-range planning committee member Susan Auglis, local business owner Steven Berg, residents Roger Chabot and Kathryn Fellows and outgoing Councilor Carol Rancourt, sitting as a representative of the now-defunct committee that last year finalized plans for pedestrian improvements in and around Oak Hill.
The idea, said Hall, is to mimic the study groups that led to “homegrown” solutions at Haigis Parkway, where a $2.35 million project completed last year created a “gateway” to both beautify the Route 1 intersection and create incentives for commuters to make more use of the parkway. That was followed by this year’s $3.35 million project at Dunstan Corner that will redraw the intersection of Route 1 and Payne Road, discouraging commuters from using Payne Road as a cut-across to the Maine Mall area and separating traffic lights at Payne Road and Pine Point Road, where cars now sometimes back up into the second light.
“Those are great models for us to look at for Oak Hill,” said Hall. “We want to come up with the conceptual solution that makes sense to us locally. Our priorities may be different than the Maine Department of Transportation engineer, who is concerned primarily with moving traffic quickly and safely.
“We need to identify conceptual designs so we can begin the long process of either acquiring right-of-ways or buying properties as they become available,” said Hall. “Right now, we have no idea what the solution to Oak Hill is, and maybe there are opportunities right now that are passing us by.”
Wegman will give some of its 8.5-acre parcel to widen Black Point Road to include a new turning lane and a sidewalk.
“To me, if we want to spend money there, whenever you can piggyback on to whatever someone else is doing, it’s usually cheaper that way,” said Rancourt, intimating that the committee may move quickly with its recommendations.
However, Hall says Wegman’s improvements will amount to “window dressing,” while he envisions the transportation committee crafting a “more long-range solution.”
“It’s not just what comes out a study that we have to concern ourselves with,” said Auglis, alluding to the 2006 proposals. “It’s the political realities as well.”
“I’ve spent some time with that study,” said Fellows. “It made for some very interesting reading. I guess I’m not totally shocked that it was ultimately not supported by the Town Council.”
However, one thing that did arise out of that earlier process was the creation of an impact fee related to Oak Hill. That fund now stands at “roughly $280,000,” said Hall, giving some money for studies and seed money toward future improvements.
Echoing Auglis, Hall said it is the “political reality that we need to get past sooner rather than later.”
“It will all depend on what we end up discussing,” agreed Auglis. “When we worked on the comprehensive plan, we went to a neighborhood that was affected and asked them how they felt. That was easy. It’s not going to be that easy with this.”
“Any concept may involve takings, or all kinds of things that will really affect people,” said Rancourt. “This is a very different kettle of fish.”
Both Rancourt and Auglis stressed that the public, especially residents along Black Point Road, will need to be kept in the loop early and often as the transportation committee does its work. What must be avoided, they said, is a repeat of the “hue and cry” that arose several years ago when the town tried to craft an open space plan.
“That was practically run out of town on a rail because it was not shopped to the public,” said Auglis.
Already, some residents have a wary eye on the transportation committee. Lisa Ronco, leader of the Friends of Oak Hill, says her group “saw the writing on the wall” with the Wegman project, ultimately realizing they were powerless to prevent it. However, the group remains dedicated to preserving the residential nature of upper Black Point Road.
Hall has said that the residents of that area now may be among the last generation to live there before the area gives way to increasing commercialization. Whether or not that prediction comes to pass, Rancourt says any plan crafted by the committee should complement last year’s pedestrian study, in hopes that the Oak Hill area, given its proximity to schools, shopping areas and housing developments – including the nearby 249-lot Eastern Village complex now coming online – can retain something of Scarborough’s bedroom-community character. The worst thing that can happen, she said, is a fix that only looks to funnel cars quickly, making Oak Hill no more than a speed bump on the “speedway that is Route 1.”
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