Walkers make their way along South Street in Blue Hill. Construction of a new sidewalk that would connect the growing commercial area with Blue Hill's downtown could start this spring. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

BLUE HILL, Maine — A long-awaited project that would make it safer for the students and other pedestrians who regularly walk between Blue Hill’s two commercial centers could break ground this spring and wrap up by the fall.

The Maine Department of Transportation plans to put the South Street sidewalk project out to bid later this month and voters at Blue Hill’s annual town meeting in April will be asked to dedicate an extra $41,800 to get it off the ground.

The project, which has been plagued by rising costs and has been downsized since originally proposed, would extend the sidewalk on the western side of South Street about a third of a mile to the Bay School, connecting the growing retail area of Blue Hill to the town’s downtown.

The extension has been a priority for the community for about five years and many see it as a way to safely join downtown’s shops, harbor, hospital and restaurants with South Street’s two schools, pharmacy, grocery stores and fitness center.

Students from the Bay School, a pre-K-8 Waldorf school on South Street, and Blue Hill Harbor School, a neighboring private high school, regularly walk along the side of the road to get to the grocery stores or other shops, said Holly Arends Murphy, the president of the Bay School’s board of directors. That can be treacherous in the winter when snow banks start to pile up and whittle down the size of the road’s shoulders.

“This sidewalk project feels pretty critical to safety,” she said. “We need a buffer for these kids before something terrible happens.”

Supporters have also said it would make the community more walkable for visitors and allow them to see both parts of town without having to move their cars.

Residents first attempted to get funding for the project in 2017. That effort failed, but the town successfully got a $400,000 federal grant a couple years later.

The project has seen considerable cost increases since then, though. Originally, the project was estimated to cost $500,000 and was to include sidewalks on both sides of the street. The town is on the hook for 20 percent of the cost, which at the time was expected to be $100,000.

The project is now estimated at $705,000 for a single sidewalk.

The price change, which Blue Hill Select Board member Scott Miller said was attributed to rising cost of construction, inflated the town’s 20 percent match to about $141,000 and necessitated the new funding request at this spring’s annual town meeting. The federal government’s $400,000 promise has not budged, but Maine DOT said it would cover the remaining gap between the grant and the town’s 20 percent, according to Miller.

While it’s been frustrating to see costs go up while the project shrinks, Miller said it seems like voters are still behind the idea.

“I have every reason to believe the town will approve it,” he said.