GRAY, Maine — Parents in this southeastern Maine town of about 8,300 people won’t let their children walk from the elementary and charter schools on Shaker Road to the dance class nearby, because it would require crossing an intersection of five major highways.
“They don’t feel safe moving around in the village,” said Sandy Carder, chair of Gray’s Town Council. She heard the concerns during a focus group with young parents in the Cumberland County town.
Gray, with its drive-through downtown, is at a crossroads in more than one way. Like many small towns across Maine, it is trying to undergo an arduous and costly transition to reclaim and revitalize the downtown it had in the early 1900s. In the process, it hopes to create a thriving center of activity and attract new businesses.
Five major highways feed through downtown Gray, making it difficult for pedestrians to cross wide roads; A suggested plan for downtown Gray would narrow the wide roads running through the town center and add sidewalks and greenspace. Credit: Courtesy of town of Gray
In a plan still in the early stages of development, the town hopes to narrow its streets, redirect some of the truck traffic and attract new investment by businesses and developers to become a destination rather than just a place to pass through. State roads 4, 100, 202, 115 and 26 converge through the town’s center in a less-than-1-mile area, and two Maine Turnpike exits feed traffic into it.
“Every community in Maine is dealing with growing pains,” Town Manager Nate Rudy said. “How do we get to where we want to be from here?”
Gray wasn’t always a hub of major roadways that historian and former Gray fire chief Galen Morrison described as “spokes on a crooked wheel.” In the late 1800s, settlers came from Yarmouth to Gray, which was home to several mills, including the first water-powered woolen mill in the country. Some stayed in Gray, but others moved on to other parts of the state.
The popularization of motorized vehicles in the 1920s created demand for more and better roads, which became the focus of the town’s growth and eventually led to today’s unwieldy traffic patterns, he said. Traffic spiked in the 1960s when the Maine Turnpike was built between Portland and Gardiner.
Two turnpike exits affect Gray, one for Gray and one for New Gloucester. The latter has one of the most expensive tolls in the state behind the York toll plaza, so trucks and cars use other roads through Gray to skirt the high fees. Of the 250 vehicle crashes in the town in 2021, about one-third were downtown, according to Maine Department of Transportation data.
The town also has become a more affordable alternative to Portland and Lewiston, and lies midway between Maine’s two largest cities, with about a 40-minute drive to either. An estimated 20,000 cars pass through the downtown intersection each day, Carder said.
“You put your life in your hands to cross the roads in Gray Village,” Morrison said.
Rudy wants to see that change for residents of all ages. And he is in it for the long haul. The plan, based on Gray’s Comprehensive Plan that was approved by the town and the state in 2020, is formidable. It requires close cooperation with the Maine DOT and other partners.
Roadwork is the first major step of the plan that needs to be in place before its other elements, including proposed new affordable and senior housing and more greenspace, fall into place. The goals include slowing traffic, rerouting 18-wheel trucks, narrowing the streets, burying some utility lines and adding ADA-compliant sidewalks. The plan also calls for swapping the designations of the current Route 26 and the bypass Route 26A, so more drivers will take the route that actually bypasses the town.
Maine DOT is driving the timing of the work, Carder said. The state agency has prioritized replacing the stormwater system under one of the major town roads, which it would do even without the town’s plan. But the town is collaborating with Maine DOT to broaden the work and figure out how to design safer roads and create more of a traditional four-way intersection that is less confusing, she said. It also wants to shorten the crosswalks, which currently stretch up to 88 feet and are difficult to cover in the 15 seconds allowed between traffic signals.
The target is to have a final plan for the scope of the road work completed by next fall and to get on the Maine DOT’s three-year schedule of repairs in 2024. At that point the DOT and town can determine a budget for the road project and determine who will pay for what parts of the work. For the town that could include tax increment financing, grants or bonds approved by voters, Carder said.
She hasn’t heard resistance to the project, which will follow the Comprehensive Plan that was approved by 79 percent of voters in 2020. Some residents have raised questions about the cost, funding and how improvements might increase taxes. None of that will be known until the scope of the roadwork is detailed. For now, Carder is hearing questions about how certain parts of the plan will work.
“People want to know how the roads will be plowed if they are narrower and cars are parked on them,” she said. “Others ask how do I walk in the village?”
This isn’t the first effort to invigorate the village. There have been various failed plans since 2008, but Carder said residents have changed their thinking about how they want their village. The Maine DOT also has embraced a “village partnership initiative” to work with towns on small to large improvements.
Rudy believes there will be plenty of reasons for people to walk downtown. The plan envisions a village center that is walkable within 15 minutes for a lot of the population. His wish list includes walk-in and urgent care clinics, cafes and smaller retailers that will give residents places to go and cause people who used to drive through to stop and spend time.
The town already has held focus groups to get feedback from residents and it has retained The Principle Group, a design firm in Boston, to create a detailed plan that was recently presented to the town for discussion. The town council also is meeting regularly with Maine DOT to work out the road plan and posts those meetings on its website.
Carder said the Maine DOT emphasis on collaborating on projects has small towns across the state looking into how to reclaim their centers and spawn activity.
“Maine has many historical village centers, which makes us unique and gives us an edge if we can revitalize them and convert them into places where people feel safe and businesses want to be,” Carder said.