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Rt. 236 communities ready to 'advocate as one'

By Deborah McDermott
[email protected]

Complete Maine News Index

It is one of the most heavily traveled roads in York County and among the most dangerous. Ask anyone who commutes along Route 236 and he or she will tell you - about the back-ups and the stop-and-go nature of the road with its five major intersections.

And the situation is compounded by three public schools, a shopping center and numerous small businesses, all of which generate traffic.

It’s also a road that has been studied, and studied, and then studied some more - all of the efforts sitting on an Augusta shelf collecting dust.

But a new group that has met for the past eight months intends to change all that and to finally bring about real solutions to alleviate the problems of this clogged roadway.

And the way they will do it, they say, is by working together across town lines and forging a regional voice they expect will be heard not only in Augusta, but in Washington, D.C., as well.

The Route 236 Implementation Committee is comprised of planning board and transportation committee members from Kittery, Eliot, South Berwick and Berwick, as well as officials from the Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission, the Maine Department of Transportation, York County Community Action, the Maine Turnpike Authority, the Yorks Area Chamber of Commerce, the Eastern Trails Management District and KEYS Future by Design.

And while that may sound like too many bureaucratic cooks stirring an overworked broth, that’s not the case, said Steve Workman, a committee member from Kittery representing the Trails Management District.

"Is it effective? Absolutely," Workman said. "What’s missing in government is the big-picture perspective. They often fail to see how issues and resources interact. Many of the people on this committee get that. It allows us to get outside of the box and say, ‘What if?’"

Tom Reinauer, transportation director of SMRPC and the committee chair, agrees.

"It’s a diverse, strong committee with a lot of ideas and with members who are very knowledgeable," he said.

Statistics trip off of Reinauer’s tongue. Currently, Route 236 handles up to 25,000 vehicles a day. In the morning, 70 percent of that is headed toward Portsmouth. N.H., and in the evening the same percentage of cars are traveling toward the Berwicks.

Then there’s the problem of the Dover traffic - people fed up with the gridlock of the Little Bay Bridges on New Hampshire’s Spaulding Turnpike opt instead for Route 236. These motorists comprise 25 percent of all traffic.

Add to that shipyard workers and truckers who want to avoid weigh stations on the Maine Turnpike and Route 1. Add even further the burgeoning population of those who can’t afford to live in Portsmouth and are buying homes farther and farther west.

"It’s a commuter road, basically. A lot of towns’ traffic patterns feed into that as well," Reinauer said. "As far as employment goes, the Portsmouth region has grown significantly in the past 10 years. People live Sanford south and commute to Portsmouth or Newington."

The committee knows only too well these realities, Reinauer said, and decided from the beginning to look at the statistics, but to quickly move beyond them.

"The focus of this group is on action. Let’s not say, ‘What is wrong - again,’ but work toward solutions."

Since its formation only eight months ago, it can already boast some accomplishments:

l For one, Maine State Police have agreed to train local police on how to inspect over-limit trucks and enforce the pertinent laws. In addition, State Police have agreed to let Kittery, Eliot and South Berwick police know when it is opening the weigh stations on the turnpike. Also, at the committee’s request, the Maine Turnpike Authority has agreed to develop a report on wide loads and overweight trucks.

l In South Berwick, the committee determined immediate studies need to be generated to deal with clogging of the downtown area and problems with traffic from Marshwood Middle School. Consultants were hired and work is scheduled to begin soon.

l In the area of public transportation, COAST, the organization that provides bus service in Seacoast New Hampshire, has agreed to commit some of its planning funds to study whether it’s feasible for the service to travel Route 236.

l The Maine DOT, at the committee’s request, will soon begin an in-depth traffic study of the corridor. This will involve "massive data collection" - traffic counts, counts at major intersections, accident patterns and speed studies, Reinauer said. It will then recommend projects for consideration.

Armed with this information, the committee will then discuss possible solutions, which might include a bypass around South Berwick and a widening of the road between Kittery and South Berwick.

Whatever the direction, the committee is determined the solutions forged have the support of all three Route 236 towns, Workman said.

"The message coming out of the charitable funds community and lawmakers at the state and federal level is, ‘We have limited funds, and if you want them, you’re going to have to share resources and collaborate.’"

He said the Eastern Trail Management District, comprising 12 towns through which a bike/pedestrian path winds, recently received $1 million in federal transportation funds.

"And the only reason we got it was because we could show we had regional support."

Asked what he envisions Route 236 to be five years from now, he said a road where there are few or no accidents, where the volume of traffic can move with little impediment, and where all zoning ordinances governing 236 are uniform in all three towns.

"This is reasonable," he said, "but only if we, as a united bloc of towns, advocate as one."

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