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The Gorham East West Planning Project

In 2007, after decades of on-going and various conversations about the need for better east-west transportation connections between the Greater Portland area and points west, the 123rd Maine Legislature directed the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) and the Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) to conduct a study “of existing highway infrastructure and future capacity needs west of Route 1 in York and Cumberland counties including the Greater Gorham and Sanford areas.”  Resolve, 2007, Chapter 95 (LD 1720).  The study was to include highway system capacity, land use and transit strategies.    This legislative directive was separated into two separate studies – one for each county.

MaineDOT became the lead agency for the York County effort, which became known as Central York County Connections Study.  Costs were shared 80%-MaineDOT and 20%-MTA.  This study, completed in 2014 at a total cost of over $1.0 million, concluded that no additional highway capacity was needed or wanted by the communities between the Turnpike and Sanford, but that localized intersection improvements and increased signage would improve mobility in that corridor, being principally Route 111.
 
The MTA was became the lead agency for the Cumberland County effort, which became known as the Gorham East West Corridor Feasibility Study, with costs shared 80%-MTA, 20%-MaineDOT.  This study was an intensive, multi-disciplined planning effort with dedicated participation from the municipalities of Gorham, Westbrook, South Portland and Scarborough.  This four year, $ 1.1 million effort concluded in September 2012 with the publication of a 181 page report.  The report found that, even after the implementation of aggressive land use strategies and a more robust transit system, there was a need for additional roadway capacity.  More specifically, the report included three basic recommendations.

1.      Land-use.  The study recommended that the participating municipalities (Gorham, Westbrook, South Portland and Scarborough) explore land use strategies which “support a more efficient way for residents to travel to jobs and services”.  The Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System (PACTS), a federally-recognized Metropolitan Planning Organization, is leading the effort to work with municipalities to assist in the implementation of these land use recommendations.  The MTA is monitoring these efforts, but has no long-term financial liability for further planning or implementation.

2.      Transit.  The study provided two tiers of transit recommendations.  The first tier focused on enhancing the existing services and evaluating potential expansion of existing routes.  The second tier focused on additional service to outlying areas currently without service.  The study identified MaineDOT and the Greater Portland Council of Governments as the lead agencies to assist municipalities in the implementation of these recommendations.  Again, the MTA is monitoring these efforts, but has no long-term financial liability for further planning or implementation.


3.       Roadway Capacity As noted above, the report identified the need for additional roadway capacity to improve mobility.  Two general scenarios were analyzed.  The first scenario evaluated adding capacity by widening existing roadways, most notably Routes 22, 114, and Running Hill Road.  The second scenario evaluated adding capacity with a new roadway.  The study concluded that “the two Roadway Improvement Scenarios identified in the study should be elevated to the next level of evaluation with the intent of identifying a preferred alternative”.  
The obvious question left pending by the 2012 Gorham E-W Study was who should evaluate the two roadway capacity scenarios.  Obviously, the MTA is not in a position to own, toll or operate state roadways.  Therefore, the widening existing roads scenario would need to be developed by MaineDOT.  If MaineDOT attempted to do so, most transportation professionals and municipal officials with knowledge of the situation believe that widening existing roads would not fix the mobility problem, would have devastating impacts to abutting landowners, would be inconsistent with local community planning, and would not be financially feasible given the lack of a viable funding source.  If true, the only other roadway capacity option would be a new roadway.

The MTA does have the statutory authority and apparent financial ability to engage in a new, tolled highway spur.  The MTA’s enabling act provides that the MTA may raise tolls to pay for constructing  . . . access roads or portions of access roads that have been requested by the department and in the sole discretion of the authority are from time to time determined to warrant the expenditure of turnpike revenues,” and to pay for “constructing . . . interchanges”. See 23 M.R.S.A §1973(3).  Regarding funding feasibility, both the MTA Chief Financial Officer and the MTA Consulting Engineer have preliminarily concluded that the new tolled spur is financially viable.  If the new road option proceeds to a detailed analysis phase, fiscal feasibility this would need to be further analyzed.

Despite this authority and fiscal ability, one might ask whether the MTA should be the entity to lead this project.  The answer depends upon one’s view of the MTA’s mission.  Without question, the MTA’s primary function is to provide a safe, efficient, and modern toll express highway from Kittery to Augusta.  However, the very reason for the MTA existence was its ability to toll, finance and provide highway transportation solutions that the State could not.  Stated another way, it has always been part of MTA’s mission to promote the economic and social well-being of Maine citizens by facilitating transportation improvements that the MTA Board determines are prudent and within its power and obligations.  This project fits cleanly within this more comprehensive view of the MTA’s mission.
 
Of course, even with a broader view of the MTA’s mission, there is always an obligation to act prudently.  Clearly, the MTA does not want to pay for a multi-million dollar, environmental permitting exercise that results in no real solutions.  To prevent this, the MTA has sought and continues to seek efficient ways to properly narrow the analysis to practicable roadway alternatives.

By letter dated June 27, 2013, the MTA requested that the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) narrow the alternatives to a new, limited access highway between the Gorham Bypass and the Maine Turnpike that can be funded, built and maintained by the MTA.  Regarding the widening existing roads alternative, the MTA noted that “even if the MTA were legally empowered to undertake a project of this kind, it would be nearly impossible, financially, for the MTA to do so”.

By letter dated October 29, 2014, the ACOE’s responded that although both roadway scenarios had to be analyzed in the next phase, more information may show that the widening existing roads alternative may not work.  Specifically, the letter reads, in part, “[p]resumably MTA would attempt to demonstrate that the [widening existing roadway alternative] are either not available; not practicable from a cost standpoint; they are more environmentally damaging; or they in some way do not meet the overall project purpose”, and that “[t]he overall project purpose is the key element in that it forms the basis for future alternative analyses”.  
 
On April 30, 2015, the MTA Board authorized MTA staff to contract with HNTB to conduct work aimed at efficiently seeking a determination from the ACOE regarding the practicability of the widening existing roadways alternative.  The MTA will be the sole applicant communicating with the ACOE, although coordination with MaineDOT regarding transportation system conclusions will be required.  This work will have two primary steps.  First, MTA and HNTB staff will work with the ACOE to develop a project purpose statement.  The project purpose statement will include language regarding mobility, impacts to local land use plans, access, availability of alternatives, and project financial viability.   After reviewing the approved project purpose statement, the MTA Board will assess risk and determine whether to continue.  Second, if approved by the Board, HNTB will further analyze the expansion of existing roadway alternative.  Thereafter, MTA staff will submit our findings to the ACOE for their practicability determination.  It is anticipated that this work should be complete by early 2016.

If the ACOE determines that the widening of the existing roadway alternative is not practicable, the MTA staff will recommend further additional work for the MTA Board to consider.  Such future work would likely include further study of financial viability, more detailed environmental work, and a review of new roadway alternatives.