A proposed road is meant to ease traffic around Portland. Critics fear it could drive up emissions
During rush hour, Route 114 in Gorham is packed with commuters in cars and trucks traveling from nearby towns to and from the Portland area.
That's why Peter Mills, the executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, is pitching the Gorham Connector, a four-and-a-half-mile long road from south Gorham to exit 45 on the Maine Turnpike. Mills says the four-lane toll highway will shave time off of commutes.
“It greatly relieves traffic congestion, not only through Gorham but through Westbrook, and Scarborough, and even parts of South Portland," he says.
The highway would cut through fields, woodlots, and a golf course, and over the Stroudwater River and Red Brook. But Mills says the bypass beats the alternative of widening the cluttered roads.
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
“If you compare that with building a clean, independent four-lane road through open country, from south Gorham to exit 45, the independent road wins hands down. It is not acceptable to people to turn all of those local roads into route 302," Mills says. "They don’t want to see it.”
Mills and his team developed the proposed route after talking to more than 100 home and business owners. They've already bought some land and taken one key piece by eminent domain.
The towns of Gorham, Scarborough, South Portland, and Westbrook strongly support the concept. But last summer the Portland City Council voted unanimously to ask the turnpike authority to stop work on the project, pending the results of a regional rapid transit study by the Greater Council Portland of Governments.
Nancy Smith, CEO of Grow Smart Maine, says, "I think it's important to compare this proposed solution of the spur with the proposed solution of rapid transit."
She's hoping for the development of a rapid transit system to connect Gorham, Westbrook, and Portland. And the towns were connected by an electric trolley line more than a century ago. Smith says reducing miles traveled is key.
"If you still have that number of cars commuting in, in their own single vehicles... you're not addressing the problem the way that a transit system would," she says. "And that’s change. That’s very different from how most Mainers are used to getting to and from work. We love having our own cars. And change is hard.”
Portland transportation journalist Christian MilNeil is skeptical that the connector will solve the congestion problem. He says building more highway capacity makes it easier to drive, and that, in turn, increases the amount of driving. This is a concept known as induced demand. Build the highway, he says, and it will be quicker to drive to towns like Standish. Then, more people will move there, and traffic will increase.
“The conventional wisdom that new highways are going to solve traffic problems is very hard to overcome, even though there’s no evidence and no experience of that ever happening anywhere. That’s just a very appealing idea for a lot of people," he says. "My only response is that we’ve been doing that for 80 years, and it’s never worked so maybe we need to try something different."
MilNeil is also skeptical that the state will be able to attain climate goals in the climate plan developed by Maine Gov. Janet Mills, Peter Mills' sister, without the turnpike taking more aggressive action to reduce both greenhouse gas emissions, and vehicle miles traveled.
But Mills says the turnpike is making climate-friendly strides by installing chargers for electric cars, for example, and by supporting transit options like Concord Coach Lines. And he thinks that building the new road could help meet a key goal of the state climate plan.
"It does ultimately reduce vehicle miles traveled if it makes transit feasible, or even bicycle paths feasible, alternatives feasible, well yes, miles go down as well," he says. "But the first goal has to be getting traffic moving and reducing the hours people are spending in their vehicles."
Commuters stopping at a convenience store near the middle of the proposed route have differing opinions about the plan.
Sam Lariviere, who lives in Westbrook and often travels these roads, says he has noticed traffic increasing over the years.
“It gets really hectic, even in the fall, it is pretty congested up in this area, all because of the rising population and stuff like that," he says.
But Lariviere says he's not in favor of the connector. “ I wouldn’t want to see one, because Maine is Maine, we like our small-knit communities, we like the quietness, we like what we like," he says.
But Tyler Toothaker says the growth in this area demands better roads. He moved from Portland to Gorham two years ago, seeking a quieter place to raise a family. But his 11-mile commute to South Portland can take 45 minutes at rush hour.
“These surrounding communities Gorham, Standish, Buxton, I just met a couple who just moved to Limerick, I know people who moved out to Limington," he says. "So to decongest some of these roads — 22, 202, 114, and 25 — would be a real help.”
Any help won't be imminent, though. Mills expects the next steps in the process — public engagement and permitting — would take two or three years. And if the project gets permitted, construction could take another two or three years.
For now, these roads offer snarls of traffic, and glimpses of varying visions of Maine's climate future.