A detour that’s forcing heavy trucks away from an Old Town bridge, an uptick in distracted driving and Orono’s difficulty in finding a new crossing guard have combined to snarl traffic this fall at a key intersection by the town’s middle and high schools during school start and dismissal times.
The factors have made the important job of crossing guard especially challenging in Orono.
The intersection of Main Street — also known as U.S. Route 2 — and Westwood Drive, the main road to the town’s middle and high schools, has become increasingly congested, dangerous and unpleasant this fall, with impatient drivers hurling insults at the people charged with keeping students safe as they arrive at and depart from school, according to town and school officials.
Traditionally, a police officer was often stationed at the intersection to direct the flow of traffic while a crossing guard stopped traffic to allow students and other pedestrians to cross, Orono Public Safety Director and Fire Chief Geoff Low said.
That changed during the pandemic. With reduced traffic, the town used its police officers as the crossing guard. But now, Orono has shifted back to hiring crossing guards from outside of law enforcement, he said.
“We’re seeing an increased amount of traffic from people not wanting to take Stillwater right now with the bridge. You’re also seeing more traffic that’s going to the mill,” Low said, referring to the ND Paper mill in Old Town. “So it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous out there on Main Street.”
In July, the state’s department of transportation posted the Llewellyn Estes Memorial Bridge, which carries Stillwater Avenue over the Stillwater River just past the Orono-Old Town line. The posting means vehicles that weigh 30 tons or more cannot use the bridge’s northern span, forcing logging trucks that carry a substantial portion of wood harvested in Maine to detour.
Since the bridge was posted, Low said there has been an increase in truck traffic along Route 2, which has exacerbated the problem at the road’s intersection with Westwood Drive.
To address the problem, the town has hired at least one new crossing guard who will still perform the core job of protecting pedestrians but will also minimally direct traffic, he said.
“Our primary goal for this person is always to make sure that people and kids can cross the street safely. That is the No. 1 mission of that position,” Low said. “Secondary is to allow for some flow of traffic out of Westwood onto Main Street, because it gets so busy and so backed up with people leaving the school.”
Until a few years ago, Maine crossing guards could only stop traffic to assist pedestrians. But in 2017, then-Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, sponsored successful legislation that allowed crossing guards near school grounds to also direct traffic if they worked with a police department and had proper training.
But Orono had a difficult time finding a new crossing guard, and wasn’t able to hire one until just a few weeks ago, Low said.
Gianna Perry has been the crossing guard at the intersection of Main Street and Westwood Drive for less than two weeks but has already had some difficulty getting drivers to obey the stop sign she wields.
“At first I was a little bit worried about it, but it’s not too bad. A lot of the people will even stop if I’m not here or if I don’t see the kids or something,” Perry said. “When I get here in the morning, sometimes a lot of them are already on their way to school early, and I always see people stopping for them. I think it’s just that distracted drivers sometimes don’t.”
On Wednesday, Perry was partnered up with Orono police Officer Ed Leskey, who has routinely filled in as the intersection’s crossing guard and traffic controller. While Perry can’t yet direct the traffic alone, the pair can work together if Leskey is there, he said.
As Perry stood in the crosswalk Wednesday afternoon with Leskey behind her helping to direct traffic, Leskey had to step into a lane of traffic with his arm outstretched as a car hurtled toward the intersection with no sign of stopping. The car eventually stopped with Leskey in the roadway.
“She did everything right. That car was not going to stop,” Leskey said. “That’s what aggravates me. She had the sign up, she had her reflective vest on and you saw how quick that car was coming.”
Low and Leskey said they have noticed an uptick in distracted drivers.
While the crossing guard position will be a little different than it has been in years past, the town has also explored putting a traffic light at the intersection, but found it would cost at least $1 million, Low said.
In the meantime, the town is looking at installing other signage that could include flashing lights to show when someone is crossing the road, he said.
“It’s kind of one of those thankless jobs that I think has been difficult to have someone consistently fill,” said RSU 26 Superintendent Meredith Higgins, who sent an email to community members this week asking them to be patient and drive as safely as possible. “So my goal in sharing this with the school community is just to really solicit their help and be supportive of this new crossing guard and just understand the scope of what that person has been hired to do.”