Metro

In picturesque Maine town, traffic is a double-edged sword

WISCASSET, ME - APRIL 5: Wiscasset business owners Stacy Linehan of Treats Bakery, James Kochan of James Kochan Fine Art and Antiques and Erika Soule of Rock Paper Scissors sit outside Soule’s shop on Thursday, April 5, 2018 . The Maine Department of Transportation’s plan to eliminate on-street parking in the town, in order to widen the travel lanes and reduce bottlenecks during the summer tourist season, is being met by opposition by the three owners. (Carl D. Walsh for The Boston Globe)
Carl D. Walsh for The Boston Globe
Stacy Linehan, James Kochan, and Erika Soule sat outside Soule’s shop on Main Street in Wiscasset, Maine.

WISCASSET, Maine — This riverfront town might be “the prettiest village in Maine,” as signs entering town proclaim. But it’s also infamous for snail-pace traffic jams that can make a leisurely summer’s drive as appealing as days-old chowder.

Anyone who has driven coastal Route 1 toward Boothbay Harbor or Camden in high season knows the drill: Don’t bother carving out time to enjoy the old architecture and artsy storefronts in downtown Wiscasset. You’ll be staying for a while, like it or not.

Three-mile backups will see to that.

Advertisement

Wiscasset, about an hour north of Portland, has generally borne the burden stoically, knowing that the traffic, however aggravating, is a boon to its businesses. But state transportation officials, prodded by Governor Paul LePage, now are determined to make a dent in the problem.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

To improve the traffic flow through the town center, officials are proposing to eliminate most parking on historic Main Street, a plan that has smashed open a hornet’s nest of opposition. If drivers cannot pull over, business owners argue, they’ll just inch their way through town without stopping.

“If this plan goes through, I can see empty storefronts downtown,” said Debra Schaffer, who owns a women’s clothing shop.

The state plan would do away with angled street parking, which proponents call a safety hazard, and replace it with much wider sidewalks. Two sets of traffic lights would be added to a short span of Main Street — the local name for Route 1 — that funnels about 25,000 cars a day to and from a two-lane bridge across the Sheepscot River in summer.

Cars would no longer back into traffic from parking spots, and pedestrians would have shorter walks across the road. In theory, planners believe, that should help traffic.

Advertisement

Wiscasset voters rejected the plan last year, and the town recently sued the state to block it. But LePage, who has owned a summer place in nearby Boothbay Harbor, appears bent on moving forward.

In an e-mail exchange last year, LePage told a former Wiscasset entrepreneur that he takes the traffic backup personally. Ron Phillips, the retired president of Coastal Enterprises, shared the e-mails with the Globe.

“Between June and September, it takes approximately (give or take a few minutes) 1 hour 20 minutes to go from Augusta to Boothbay. The rest of the year it takes 40 minutes,’’ LePage wrote of the drive from the state capital to his summer home.

“It is a significant bottleneck and safety issue. We’ve tried for 65 years with numerous administrators to solve this problem. I have given . . . full authority to fix this nightmare with or without working with Wiscasset.”

To many Wiscasset residents, the operative word is “without.”

Advertisement

After approving the project in 2016, town voters reversed course just over a year later after the Maine Department of Transportation dropped its proposal to seek 80 percent federal funding for the work in order to rely solely on state funding instead.

Many residents saw that move as a way to avoid compliance with historic preservation restrictions, which federal help would require. And when the state later seized a century-old downtown building by eminent domain — evicting a conservation trust with an eye toward demolition — alarm spread along the steep, short Main Street of what once was the busiest port north of Boston.

If he had his way, LePage wrote Phillips, he would build a bridge over Main Street from the top of the hill to the river.

The issue has pitted neighbor against neighbor in this small community, whose downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places and was added last year by Maine Preservation to its most-endangered list.

Several Main Street store owners said the parking spaces are the difference between making a living and having to pull up stakes.

“It’s upsetting because it feels, as a shop owner in Wiscasset, that people don’t care whether your business lives or dies,” said Erika Soule, who owns a stationery store on Main Street.

WISCASSET, ME - APRIL 5: Cars make their way along Rt 1, in the Maine town of Wiscasset, as cars, that were parked streetside, try to merge in. The Maine Department of Transportation’s plan to eliminate on-street parking in the town, in order to widen the travel lanes and reduce bottlenecks during the summer tourist season, is being met by opposition of many business owners. (Carl D. Walsh for The Boston Globe)
Carl D. Walsh for The Boston Globe
Main Street in Wiscasset, Maine, funnels about 25,000 cars a day to and from a two-lane bridge across the Sheepscot River in the summer.

A spokeswoman for LePage said he could not comment because of pending litigation. State transportation officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Each of the two dozen parking spaces on Main Street brings in about $25,000 of business each year, shop owners said. One of them, Stacy Linehan, said the state plan could turn her bakery, called Treats, from a year-round business that employs 10 people to strictly a seasonal one, even with the satellite parking lots that the state proposes.

The impact also would be felt in the sleepy winter season, they said.

“I bet we will easily see a loss of 40 percent of our business in the winter,” Linehan wrote to Citizens for Sensible Solutions, which opposes the state plan. “At some point it may mean me just being closed in the winter, which is not why I purchased Treats in the first place.”

The town has filed a lawsuit to require the state to comply with all local ordinances, including historic preservation restrictions. One owner of commercial real estate on Main Street, a man whose family has long ties to the town but who lives primarily in Florida, has offered to put up $75,000 for the legal bill.

“This was rushed through and foisted onto the town and its people,” said Ralph Doering III, whose money has yet to be accepted by Wiscasset officials.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has urged that the lawsuit proceed. Abandoning the case “would undermine the local laws in Wiscasset and create a precedent for the State of Maine to engaged similar conduct in other Maine towns,” said William Cook, the trust’s associate general counsel.

Despite the offer of financial help from the Doerings, concerns about escalating attorney fees have worried many residents, several of whom urged the five-member Select Board at a recent hearing to drop the suit. A townwide vote April 17 will determine whether Wiscasset proceeds or not.

Lonnie Kennedy-Patterson, a downtown property owner who backs the project, criticized many opponents as deep-pocketed outsiders who do not live in Wiscasset, which he said is “dying on the vine” and needs new business that the plan’s improvements could attract.

The growing acrimony in this quiet town concerns Bill Sutter, a longtime resident and harbormaster who opposes the project.

“There seems to be a philosophy growing in this country that if you don’t get your way, if your man doesn’t win, that you don’t have to accept who did,” Sutter said.

A resolution might not be reached for some time. Until then, one thing is as certain in town as the smell of lobster rolls at Wiscasset’s best-known business, Red’s Eats: Crammed and crawling traffic will return to Wiscasset this summer.

WISCASSET, ME - APRIL 5: Cars are parked streetside, outside Treats Bakery window, in the Rt 1 Maine town of Wiscasset. The Maine Department of Transportation’s plan to eliminate on-street parking in the town, in order to widen the travel lanes and reduce bottlenecks during the summer tourist season, is being met by opposition of many business owners, including Treats owner Stacy Linehan. (Carl D. Walsh for The Boston Globe)
Carl D. Walsh for The Boston Globe
The Maine Department of Transportation’s plan to eliminate on-street parking in the town, in order to widen the travel lanes and reduce bottlenecks during the summer tourist season, is being met by opposition of many business owners, including Treats owner Stacy Linehan.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.