Maine Department of Transportation traffic engineers would like to eliminate the jughandle on U.S. Route 1 in Belfast. Credit: Brent Shanding | BDN

BELFAST, Maine — Belfast and New Jersey may not have much in common, but they share at least one thing: familiarity with jughandles, an unusual traffic feature intended to prevent left turns across traffic.

Jughandles are prevalent in the Garden State, but they are not widely used in Maine. An exception to that is the short right-hand loop road at the intersection of Route 1 and Northport Avenue in Belfast. Depending on who you ask, it has either long confused out-of-town drivers or has made crossing the busy coastal thoroughfare much easier. But time may be running out for the quirky traffic feature, which Maine Department of Transportation traffic engineers have singled out for removal.

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“I don’t know of any other place that has such a thing to go left,” Dennis Emidy, a traffic engineer with the department, told Belfast city councilors last week. “To me, it’s just very confusing as to who’s going to go when. You have this swooping right. You have high speeds turning into it. And in the last two or three years, it’s been a high crash location.”

He and other engineers want to enter their proposal to get rid of it into a competition for federal safety project funds.

But not everyone in Belfast is as keen on eliminating the jughandle, including people who live nearby. Nancy Smith, of John Robinson Way, a short road located close to the intersection of U.S. Route 1 and Northport Avenue, told councilors she is concerned about the proposal to remove it. The jughandle was created when the Route 1 Bypass was built to circumvent downtown.

Credit: Courtesy of the Maine Department of Transportation

“I thought this was a brilliant idea to put it in,” she said. “Apparently someone thinks otherwise. They’re trying to eliminate that now, and I question the wisdom of that. I do not think it’s going to make this area any safer.”

Emidy told city officials last week that there had been 23 crashes at the intersection between 2009 and 2018. Two were fatal.

But Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden questions if the recent rise in accidents is connected to a general increase in traffic. The two fatal accidents had nothing to do with the quirks of the jughandle, he said.

“An ill-advised campaign sign contributed to one,” he said, “and drunk driving the other.”

Emidy, though, said that eliminating the jughandle and replacing it with a dedicated left-hand turning lane would simplify the intersection and make it easier for drivers to see oncoming traffic. If they win funding, the city would not need to pay for any part of the estimated $800,000 project, which would also likely eliminate the exit from John Robinson Way to U.S. Route 1.

“You don’t want driveways close to major intersections,” the engineer said.

Previously, councilors had been skeptical about removing the jughandle. At their Aug. 20 meeting, they said that several other intersections in Belfast seemed more dangerous than this one. Councilor Eric Sanders said when he first came to Belfast, he did not know what a jughandle was. But he figured it out.

“I know there have been accidents there, but my God, it works so much better than the three other intersections we’ve complained about for at least 10 years,” he said.

After listening to the presentation from the traffic engineers, Sanders said he had a better grasp on why they wanted to remove the jughandle.

“If we’re looking at safety on Route 1, that would make sense,” he said.

For his part, McFadden acknowledged that the jughandle can be problematic.

“I used to tell my kids to avoid it,” he said. “I hesitate to use it myself. It’s been years and years since I’ve used the jughandle because it’s so dangerous to cross over two lanes of Route 1.”

Councilors will revisit the jughandle discussion Sept. 17, at which time they will decide whether to support the Maine Department of Transportation’s proposal.