2013-03-15 / Front Page

Bomb threat hightlights traffic issue

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — A Broadway traffic plan city staff and engineers recently presented to South Portland community members was largely unchanged from the presentation city councilors reviewed in January.

However, in the month between the presentations, Broadway traffic issues were brought into sharper focus when a bomb threat and evacuation of Southern Maine Community College on Monday, Feb. 25 caused traffic jams when students and staff left campus.

Tex Haeuser, South Portland’s director of planning and development, and Steve Sawyer, an engineer with Sebago Technics, presented the city’s plan March 7 to redesign travel lanes, install center medians and clearly mark bike lanes at various points of a mile-long stretch of Broadway from the Cottage Road intersection to the SMCC campus.

In attendance at the public forum were Broadway residents, city staff, candidates for the District 1 city council seat, Mayor Tom Blake, Police Chief Ed Googins and Ron Cantor, president of SMCC, among others.

Cantor said he approved of the plan and thought it would help eliminate the problem of moving vehicle traffic down Broadway if SMCC went through a similar emergency evacuation in the future, although he hopes “we never have to go through it again.”

Just before 9 a.m. on Feb. 25, the SMCC Security Center office received a phone call from someone saying there were three bombs on campus. Bomb-sniffing dogs from the Portland Police Department and Maine State Police searched campus buildings and found no threat. All three SMCC campuses were evacuated as a precaution, and there were no injuries.

Lt. Frank Clark of the South Portland Police Department provided few details of the circumstances of the bomb threat because he said the investigation is still “open and active.” Clark said police are following up on leads, but have not yet made any arrests.

Matt Wickenheiser, SMCC’s director of college relations, said he was happy with the coordination to get police on campus, work with them to search the buildings and direct students and staff during the evacuation. However, after those vehicles moved off campus, Wickenheiser said more could be done to reduce traffic congestion.

“If something like this happens and we need to get people off the peninsula in a hurry, we need to coordinate more clearly with the local authorities and make Broadway a clearer shot out,” Wickenheiser said.

At the public forum, Sawyer said the extension of a second lane approaching the Cottage Road and Broadway intersection should shorten “stacking” of cars at the traffic light, and therefore move twice as many cars through when the light turns green, helping traffic from campus move more freely.

Haueser said the planning department may also work with the college to coordinate traffic signals to move traffic along the street in the case of another emergency evacuation.

The traffic problems on Broadway that lead to SMCC extend beyond the emergency evacuation. The gridlock on the heavily traveled corridor slows students on their way to and from class, as well as Ferry Village neighborhood residents on their daily commute and parents travelling to Small School, the Little League fields or the Boys and Girls Club.

Wickenheiser said the location of SMCC in some ways limits the school’s options. SMCC is located on a peninsula near Casco Bay, with just two main roads leading to the campus: Broadway, which moves east toward Portland, and Preble Street, which snakes through the Willard Square neighborhood south to Cape Elizabeth.

Wickenheiser said SMCC is doing all it can to alleviate the issue. The college began offering 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. classes for the spring 2013 semester to provide an alternative for full-time workers and divert traffic from the rush to 8 a.m. classes.

SMCC is also focusing its potential for growth to its Bath and Brunswick campuses, which Wickenheiser said have the facilities to accommodate as many as 2,000 students. The total enrollment of the college has more than doubled in the last decade, from about 3,500 students in 2003 to 7,482 full and part-time students among all three campuses today.

“All in all, I think the college has certainly done what it can do as to aiming growth elsewhere, staggering class times to disperse the impact of local traffic and, frankly, listening to our neighbors and talking to our community,” Wickenheiser said.

Carl Eppich, transportation planner for the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System (PACTS) said ideally, cars would travel 25 to 30 miles per hour down Broadway to move traffic most efficiently. At slower speeds, he said, cars travel closer together and more efficiently.

Reducing the speed limit from 35 miles per hour is not a viable alternative, Eppich said, but the narrowed lanes and raised islands should slow drivers down.

The Maine Department of Transportation will start repaving Broadway in June, limiting the road to one-way in each direction during daytime hours while work is taking place. The new traffic arrangement will go into place when MDOT crews finish the paving work later this year.

FMI

Members of the Greater Portland Council of Governments and the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System (PACTS) are searching for members of the SMCC community and residents of east Broadway to form a Transportation Demand Management plan that will look at more alternatives to reduce traffic. Carl Eppich, a transportation planner with PACTS, said the plan will not f ocus on infrastructure, but rather on providing incentives for students to bike, ride share, or use public transportation and “get ideas and a conversation going between the school and the neighbors.” To apply to serve on the committee that will help with the TDM plan, contact Donna Tippett at the Greater P ortland Council of Governments at dtippett@gpoc.org or 774- 9891.

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