Whither Wiscasset? To Bypass or Not?

When I was a child, and my family drove up to Maine each summer from Pennsylvania, we always passed through Wiscasset. It billed itself as “The Prettiest Village in Maine,” but what I remember most vividly were the two old wooden ships rotting on the western shore of the Sheepscot River. We always had time to look at them. Traffic slowed through there, even back then.

The ships are long gone now, and so is the nuclear power plant, Maine Yankee, which was built within sight of the picturesque village a few years after we moved to Maine for good. I used to look at it from the bridge while stuck in summer traffic.

Periodically, there’s a push on the part of frustrated motorists to build a bypass around the village. This would, of course, be done with taxpayer dollars that could be used toward better public transportation along the coastal Route One corridor.

Such bypasses were built in the 1960s around Belfast and Damariscotta, when it was cheaper to do, and the results, fifty years later, are evident. Both towns have thriving centers where people can walk and bicycle comfortably, while the through traffic stays on the highway. Places where bypasses weren’t built have become bottlenecks, like Wiscasset and Camden, or garish commercial strips, like Ellsworth (though I hasten to add that Ellsworth’s downtown has seen some improvement over the past few years).

But the battle to build a bypass around Wiscasset, pitting the interests of local businesses against those of through-drivers, never seems to end. Fifty years ago, back in the Middle Automobile Age, it might have worked. Gas was cheap and the car was king. Fifty years from now, in the year 2067, will Americans still be driving the way we do? Will we still be addicted to ours cars, no matter the cost?

There’s also the problem of induced, or generated, traffic: the principle that building new roads attracts new drivers. In an article for Wired magazine titled What’s Up With That: Building Bigger Roads Actually Makes Traffic Worse, Adam Mann pretty much spells it out:

“…if you expand people’s ability to travel, they will do it more, living farther away from where they work and therefore being forced to drive into town. Making driving easier also means that people take more trips in the car than they otherwise would. Finally, businesses that rely on roads will swoop into cities with many of them, bringing trucking and shipments. The problem is that all these things together erode any extra capacity you’ve built into your street network, meaning traffic levels stay pretty much constant. As long as driving on the roads remains easy and cheap, people have an almost unlimited desire to use them.”

Mann is not as much a fan of public transportation as I am (he favors imposing tolls on well-traveled roads at times of high congestion, as some cities in Europe do). But a few trains and buses a day in the summer between Brunswick and Rockland might make a small dent in traffic, at a fraction of the cost of building a bypass.

Then there’s Acadia National Park. Cars clogged Cadillac Mountain Road to the point that the park had to close it several times over the holiday weekend. And someone flipped a van on Park Loop Road.

I love Maine as much as anybody else. I grew up here, and I’ve chosen to live here. But we’re in danger of loving it to death with cars. I believe the day will come when Acadia closes most of the park roads to private cars in peak season, allowing only bicyclists, hikers, and buses. People will grumble at first, but it will improve the park experience for everyone, not to mention the air quality. It is a national park, after all.

I also believe that public transportation along the Maine Coast will continue to grow, and to attract former drivers like me. Route One through Wiscasset will remain slow in the summer, as it has been my whole life. But that’s just Southern California on an average day. Except for a few summer weekends, Maine doesn’t have traffic.

We’re a rural state, full of places hard to get to by any other means. But cars can be shared, rented, borrowed or hired – everybody doesn’t have to own one. I hope to live long enough to see this movement take root.

Full disclosure compels me to report that I’ve driven – yes, in a car – to the coast in Brooklin three times already in the month of July. If that makes me a hypocrite, so be it. The Maine Coast is a beautiful place, and summers are short.

 

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