Rush hour traffic streams down Route 114 in Gorham as city workers return to their homes in the suburbs on Friday afternoon Dec. 10, 2021. The Maine Turnpike wants to build a $220 million spur connecting Exit 45 in Scarborough to the Gorham Bypass off Route 114 in Gorham. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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The communities west of Portland have a real problem with traffic. The region’s roads, most of them built decades ago, are inadequate to handle the growing volumes of traffic through communities like Gorham and Westbrook.

The Maine Turnpike Authority has proposed a six-mile connector road that would bring this traffic into South Portland, where it would connect with Interstate 95. The project, which is in very preliminary stages, has an eye-popping $220 million price tag. A toll would be charged on this proposed connector route.

We understand concerns that building a new road encourages more people to drive, thereby worsening congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, at a time when Maine and the country need to be reducing them. We also understand frustrations that the state has other transportation needs as well. But failing to address the traffic problems around Portland, which bring their own safety and environmental concerns, doesn’t benefit anyone.

At the same time, however, alternatives, such as improved public transit services and connections and land use rules that don’t promote sprawl, need to be parts of the solution as well.

The need for transportation improvements in the growing communities in western Cumberland County have been discussed since the 1970s, according to a 2012 feasibility study of building a new road corridor in the Gorham area. Some improvements have been made in the decades since then, but the region’s roads are still inadequate for the volume of traffic, which is projected to keep growing.

In 2017, municipal officials in Westbrook, Gorham, Scarborough and South Portland, along with the director of the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, signed onto a resolve urging that the turnpike authority begin the planning and development of such a road.

“Current morning and evening rush hour congestion on key arterials … is probably the worst in Maine,” they wrote in the resolve.

“This congestion causes an unacceptable loss of productivity, wasted fuel, degraded air quality, safety hazards, ever-worsening environmental impacts, and mobility constraints for those who depend on these overburdened roads for daily passage,” they added.

Further, the 2012 feasibility study projected that over the next 25 years “this area of Maine will receive a significant share of statewide growth, leading to worsening traffic, a tripling in the number of congested intersections, a shift of traffic to residential and secondary roads, and an increase in safety ‘hotspots.’”

“It’s a real bottleneck, and it’s really a situation that does need to be addressed,” Sen. Bill Diamond, a Democrat who represents neighboring Windham and chairs the Legislature’s transportation committee, told the Bangor Daily News.

The communities pushing for the new road have pledged, through the 2017 resolve, “to make sensible and appropriate land planning decisions to adjust to improved patterns of travel through and within the affected area in coordination with each other.” They should also commit to improving and expanding public transit in their communities.

Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills, who is the brother of Gov. Janet Mills, explained to the BDN editorial board that the turnpike authority is well positioned to take on this project because it collects tolls from those who drive on its 109-mile highway from Maine’s southern border to Gardiner and it can borrow money against that toll revenue for its construction projects. The Maine Department of Transportation, a separate entity that does not oversee the turnpike, doesn’t have this borrowing flexibility – and it has an annual backlog of $230 million worth of work that it cannot afford to complete.

This proposal needs – and will get – a lot of scrutiny. It should also spur more robust conversations about alternative ways to manage population growth, and the resulting traffic flows, in the communities around Portland.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...