Originally published in The Weekly Packet, April 18, 2013
Blue Hill Roundabout project delays could be a plus for downtown business, says shop owner
by Rich Hewitt
The start of construction on the long-discussed roundabout project atop Tenney Hill has brought with it the inevitable traffic delays.
Flaggers with R.F. Jordan, the contractor for the job, have been in place this month directing motorists as crews began clearing the intersection, the first phase of the project. The flaggers are located at the intersection and also direct traffic out of the north exit from the TradeWinds Market Place parking lot. Motorists seem to be adapting and even helping as they wave in drivers from the south exit—where there are no flaggers—into a place in the line of traffic as it begins to move.
Around town, the main topic of discussion among local residents has been how to avoid the congestion at that intersection as traffic backs up.
That’s just what Jeffrey Hallett, a project manager with R.F. Jordan, hopes will happen. So far, the biggest traffic slowdowns have come during the commuter times as people are on their way to and from work.
“Once we hit the summer traffic, we’ll run into more of a daily flow,” Hallett said. “We’re hoping people will find different routes to go to work and come home. If people could try to avoid the construction, it would be appreciated.”
Hallett noted that often what might seem like a longer route actually turns out to take much less time because drivers are avoiding the delays at the construction site.
The intersection is a high traffic area for the Peninsula region and a high-accident site as well. According to MDOT traffic counts, as many as 1,400-plus vehicles per hour go through that intersection at peak traffic times coming from Tenney Hill, South Street, Mines Road and Beech Hill Road. The intersection was at the top of the department’s crash list for Hancock County with about 28 accidents there during the five-year period between 2005 and 2010.
The roundabout, which will be 134 feet in diameter and will include a 23-foot circulating traffic lane and a 15-foot truck apron, was designed to slow traffic coming into that intersection. Nationally, roundabouts, which differ from rotaries and traffic circles, have been shown to reduce accidents on average by about 71 percent.
The impact on the traffic from the project should be minimal, according to MDOT Project Manager Paul MacDonald.
“The flaggers should be able to keep traffic moving in and out of the project,” MacDonald said. “They should be able to maintain one-way traffic at all times.”
Both MacDonald and Hallett said the biggest challenge traffic-wise will come near the end of the project as the flaggers channel traffic into the new configuration while crews are still working on the project. The paving, which usually takes up more room than the actual road building phase, typically slows down the flow of traffic.
“Usually, that’s where we see the highest impact,” Hallett said.
The department has not planned any formal detours around the project area, although MacDonald said he anticipated that locals will find other ways to get to where they’re going. That’s likely to put more pressure on nearby roads such as Parker Point and Kingdom roads and Union Street. Selectmen nixed the idea of closing Beech Hill Road to through traffic just to avoid that additional pressure on the downtown area and negative impacts on the businesses there.
The department and the contractor will work with the town and make adjustments if any problems arise, he said.
Scott Gray, president of the Blue Hill Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, said that so far, none of the chamber members has reported any problems arising from the project. Despite the slow traffic, he said, overall, the roundabout project would be a positive change for that intersection.
“I think it’s going to be one of the best things that’s happened at the top of the hill,” he said. “We’re just going to have to be a little patient while we get around to it.”
Cullen Schneider, owner of Fairwinds Florist and manager of the Black Dinah business at that Main Street location, sees both positive and negative aspects to the construction project.
Much of the florist business is done by phone and a service she offers is the delivery of arrangements throughout the peninsula area. The construction at the top of the hill and on the Deer Isle Bridge is likely to cause delays.
“My biggest concern is that I deliver,” she said. “So my staff is going to spend hours waiting in traffic between the roundabout and the bridge.”
Still, she said, with delays on Tenney Hill, motorists may just decide to stay downtown.
“I expect it might keep people downtown this summer,” she said. “I think maybe they’ll park down here and stay down here.”
Business in gift sales at the flower shop generally picks up in the summer and with SaraSara’s moving back to Main Street and a new gift shop opening around the corner, Schneider said she thinks visitors and locals alike might stay and walk around the downtown area.
“I think they’re going to find that downtown has more to offer,” she said.
Overall, she said, she welcomes the roundabout and what it will do for the town.
“I think it’s going to help traffic and slow down traffic through town,” she said. “And that will be a benefit to downtown business.”
Not everyone feels that way, however.
“I think it’s an accident waiting to happen,” said Tim Bingham, co-owner of the Mill Stream Deli, Bakery and BBQ. “I’ve seen so many roundabouts and so many accidents. I’m not really a fan.”
Bingham said he thinks the MDOT should have kept it simple and just put a traffic light at the intersection.
Business was slow at the bakery last Friday, and Bingham said he did not know if that was a result of the construction or not. This is the first full season for Mill Stream at its new location and he said they are not quite sure what to expect from the construction.
“I sure hope it helps,” he said.
The project is scheduled to last through most of the summer and be completed by the end of August.