How wide is wide enough? When selectmen settled on a 725-foot portion of Newbury Neck Road for their annual road project, “all of a sudden people started hollering they didn’t want us to update their little country road,” Steve Bemiss, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said in a recent telephone call.
Selectmen formed a committee to advise “on what we should do to make the road sustainable,” specifically its shape, width, shoulders, drainage ditches and paving.
At its narrowest point, near Pondy Lane, the road width varies from 14 to16 feet, and at Bonsey Lane, it measures 14.6 feet—a few feet shy of the Maine Department of Transportation recommendation for a low use, municipal road, Fire Chief Michael Locke said at the September 17 meeting of the committee. “It’s a safety issue,” he said.
Among committee members John Vickery, Ron Poitras, Richard Johnson, Joseph Stockbridge, David Snow and Road Commissioner Stanley Saunders are residents of Newbury Neck Road. Some have experience in engineering and liability issues. Most are concerned that widening and leveling the road will mean removing roadside trees and vegetation and set the stage for speeding vehicles.
“We are all in agreement,” said Vickery. “We don’t want this road to be a speedway.”
The committee recommended the speed limit, currently set at 35 miles per hour, be reduced to 20 or 25 miles per hour if the road was leveled and widened. But they weren’t sold on the change.
Locke explained that 19 feet is the minimum width required for two fire trucks to pass when moving in opposite directions.
“If it’s your house that’s burning, what’s your priority?” said Locke.
Other large vehicles, such as snow plows and school buses, also require more road width than exists on that portion of Newbury Neck Road, he said, especially if bicyclists, who are legally allowed three feet of distance by passing cars, are on the road.
Driving on the road recently in a private vehicle, Locke said he had to stop for four bikes.
Past Pondy Lane, the road widens to 19.2 feet by Larry Astbury’s house and 18 feet at the boat parking sign by the beach, said Locke, who had measured the various widths before the meeting. He also parked two town fire trucks in parallel positions, in the parking lot, for a live example.
“If you look at my fire trucks, going in opposite directions, are they a safe distance away from each other to travel at 20 miles per hour?” asked Locke. “I think you would [say they are] not. That’s 19 feet.” Around one foot separated the two trucks.
A fire likely would require nine tankers “continuously looping for about four to five hours,” Locke said. “There is no way out of the Neck.” Using sea water to fill tanks is off the table because it destroys fire truck hoses and tanks and “the other problem is it moves, goes out 300 to 500 feet at low tide,” Locke said.
If the road was widened to 18 feet with two feet of packed, graded shoulder on either side of the road, one truck could pull over while the other passed.
“These roads have been here for 50 to 60 years,” said Snow. “It would be easier for me if we had some history, some record” of the need for increasing its width.
“We’ve had a few calls down there,” said Locke, “but luckily…not a structure fire. We average a structure fire every 2-1/2 years, [which is] average for this population.”
Snow, who had conferred with a Maine Municipal Association attorney, said there is no “command we go 18 feet” and that there is no liability risk if the roads are safe for vehicles traveling at the posted speed.
“The question is, is there anything that constrains this [committee] to choose a width based on this [MDOT road specification]? The answer is no,” Snow said.
“Seventeen feet and a four-foot shoulder would allow trucks to go by,” said Vickery.
“At 17 feet, the loaded truck can’t pass without going off the road,” said Selectman Bill Matlock. “The loaded truck has to stay on the pavement.”
A tanker filled with 20,000 gallons of water weighs about 50,000 pounds, and requires pavement; an empty tanker could pull onto a hard shoulder, Locke said.
“I feel totally safe in terms of a fire truck reaching me” at a 17-foot width,” Vickery said after selectmen and Locke left the meeting. “What we’re trying to do is eliminate tearing down all those bushes. If we open a visual aspect and make it wider, we’re going to get those speeders.”
Poitras and Stockbridge recommended bringing in a design professional who has recently advised Castine on its proposed road improvements. “I’d like to hear what he has to say about exceptions,” said Poitras. “This is a small exception in a small area. It’s doable, practical.”
“We need a road that works,” said Johnson. “The MODT is not binding. Good judgment is.”