History of the roundabout idea at Boothbay Center

Posted:  Tuesday, June 28, 2016 - 8:00am

I have served as Lincoln County Planner since 1998 and in that capacity I would like to offer some history and reflection on the Boothbay Common traffic situation. I have not met most of the folks who have been expressing strong opinions on the proposed project, so I don’t have an iron in the fire except in the interest of solving what has become an almost intractable transportation problem for the peninsula.

In 2002, Edgecomb, Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor selectmen appointed a committee to work with a professional traffic engineering firm to develop an improvement plan for Route 27. After much study and analysis, the 2003 final report recommended among other things a roundabout at Boothbay Common pending completion of a feasibility study. Why the recommendation? First, because at that time traffic volume and congestion had grown to the point where it was getting more difficult for cars and pedestrians to safely navigate the complex and confusing series of intersections. Second, almost all traffic to the rest of the peninsula had to travel through the Common, so problems there were also problems for Southport, Boothbay Harbor and much of Boothbay. Third, the Common was beginning to look and function less as a community center and more as traffic pass-through.

Has anything changed since 2003 that would make this recommend less valid? If anything, the years since then have made addressing the traffic situation even more pressing. Despite the worst economic recession since the 1930s, an additional 749 housing units were added in the three communities between 2000 and 2010, an increase of 15 percent in the total housing stock in just a decade. Data for 2010-2016 is not yet available but it is likely there has been additional growth in housing since 2010.

The peninsula has also welcomed new businesses and institutions and growth at existing facilities since 2003. Many small businesses that rely on reasonable and safe automobile access for its customers have sprung up around the communities. Additionally, we never anticipated anything on the scale of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens 13 years ago nor the continued expansion of Bigelow Laboratory since its relocation to East Boothbay.

Regarding traffic, between 2000 and 2007 (roughly the start of the recession) traffic counts at Route 27 and County Club Lane grew by about 6.5 percent or an additional thousand average annual daily trips, exacerbating the conditions the committee observed in 2003. This growth was expected to continue except that with the onset of the Great Recession in 2007-2008 traffic plummeted with the result that by 2013 traffic was back down to the 2000 level. The economy has mostly recovered since 2013 with traffic increasing in the midcoast by about 2 percent alone from 2014 to 2015, so we are well on our way to tracking the previous historical growth pattern in traffic and its attendant problems at Boothbay Common.

From the letters to the editor in the Register to the comments made at public meetings, it is clear that people are worried about how Boothbay may change in the future if the roundabout becomes a reality. I would respond to those concerns in a couple of ways. Your town center, the historic hub of the community and the peninsula, is already changing. All too often during the year it is defined by a wall of traffic that separates the Common from the town office and which makes it all too difficult for those returning from Southport, West Boothbay Harbor and Barters Island to enter Route 27 or for pedestrians to safely cross the road. I would also say that any future proposals to create new businesses, build new housing or otherwise significantly change the village will require specific approvals by your Planning Board. These approvals will be separate and apart from any authorization by the town to move forward with traffic changes. That is, the community will still control the future appearance, function and uses within the village. Finally, in 2003 when the committee made its recommendation, roundabouts were rarely seen in Maine. Since that time they have sprung up all across the state and are recognized as a safe and effective solution to many problem intersections. Indeed, I travel through roundabouts on a daily basis and find them preferable to signalized intersections in high traffic locations.

For as long as I have worked in Lincoln County, the two most significant traffic problems in the county have been Route 1 in Wiscasset and Route 27 at Boothbay Common. Last week Wiscasset took a giant step in dealing with its downtown traffic with a resounding vote to reconfigure its downtown to make it more people friendly while moving traffic through more quickly and safely. Now it’s Boothbay’s turn to look to the future and decide how to best reclaim its town center while still meeting the transportation needs of its citizens, summer residents and visitors. In my opinion, the solution recommended in 2003 and since corroborated by other traffic engineers is still the best and most viable way to accomplish this.