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Deer Isle, Isle au Haut and Stonington, Maine.
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by Rich Hewitt
Close to 100 island residents peppered a representative from the Maine Department of Transportation last week with ideas on how to make the Deer Isle Causeway safer.
Steven Thebarge, the MDOT regional manager in Bangor, also came to the informational meeting held October 11 with a preliminary proposal for installing a guard rail on the causeway that could be done easily and quickly.
Thebarge explained that engineers were concerned about whether it would be possible to drill holes without major changes to the causeway. But, he said, crews recently drilled test holes along sections of the causeway and were pleased with the results.
“We had good success in areas where we thought there might be problems,” he said. “We drilled holes 12 inches in diameter, so it looks like that’s a feasible option.”
The project would involve removing the rocks that line the edge of the causeway now. Using steel guard rails that attach directly to the steel posts in the ground would allow the department to widen the road slightly as part of the project, he said.
Thebarge also noted that the telephone poles are “really close” to the road on the causeway and added that the department has the right to have the utility move those poles as part of the project.
“The poles are supposed to be two to three feet from the rail,” he said. “Some of those poles are much less than two or three feet from the road. We can work with [Bangor Hydro] in conjunction with the project.”
The biggest issue with such a project, he said, is the cost, which based on “very preliminary figures” could run as high as $350,000. Thebarge said one of the things he needs to do is to get more accurate estimates of the cost before he can make a recommendation to the department in Augusta. There likely will be environmental issues, especially if they talk about adding materials to widen the road.
The meeting on the causeway was arranged by State Rep. Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) who said that he was responding to concerns he’d heard from local residents. He noted that there had been a number of accidents on the causeway and that fairly recently there had been one fatality and one near fatality there.
Residents at the meeting were more than ready to voice their concerns. They liked getting rid of the rocks on the side of the causeway.
Nancy Knowlton said those rocks were “a death trap” and that hitting them in a vehicle was bound to cause a serious, even fatal accident.
“If you’re lucky, you stay in the road; if you’re not, you go overboard,” she said.
Walter Reed of the Memorial Ambulance Corps echoed her sentiments.
“That’s the most dangerous spot on the island; that’s where we get the most accidents and the most serious accidents,” he said.
When they get a call of an accident on the causeway, he said, “it sends chills down our spines.”
Several residents said that speed was an issue and wanted measures that would slow traffic. Cathy Hart asked about traffic calming measures such as reflector lights. Others suggested speed bumps and larger signs warning of the curves.
Holly Eaton suggested that the causeway should be one-way with stop lights at either end.
“People should have to stop,” she said. “We need something to make people stop and slow down.”
Thebarge agreed that speed was a problem on the causeway, but noted that as it is constructed, the road meets the standards for the existing 40 mph speed limit. The problem, he said, is that most of the drivers don’t follow the speed limit. Recent monitoring on the causeway showed that about 75 percent of the drivers were driving over the speed limit, he said.
Kathleen Billings-Pezaris, the town manager in Stonington reminded Thebarge that the communities depend on the bridge and the causeway to move people and goods on and off the island.
“That causeway is our lifeline,” she said. “If we’re going to do something, we’d best do it right.”
She noted that the town of Stonington had widened and raised the Moose Island causeway at a cost of about $400,000.
Dick McWilliams also urged that the MDOT take a longer view and consider the impact of an anticipated rise in sea level will have on the causeway, noting that water already washes over the causeway at high tides.
“We’re going to have sea level rise and in 10 or 20 years, we’re going to be revisiting this,” he said.
The causeway was built between 1927 and 1937 by the town, according to some residents. One man complained that the structure had not been maintained properly since then. And another noted that a big improvement could be made by simply raising the drop off just at the bottom of Hardy Hill going onto the causeway.
Some residents defended the causeway and said they did not want to see it changed drastically. But others argued that the way to make it safer was to make it wider.
While major work on the causeway may raise environmental issues, Dick Fleming noted that the creation of the causeway had had an environmental impact of its own by stopping the flow of water between Little Deer Isle and Deer Isle. He noted that there had been a productive fishery in that area at one time that had disappeared after the causeway was completed and suggested that the causeway needed to be widened and raised with perhaps several culverts added to allow the free flow of water.
Aside from the environmental issues involved, Thebarge said that when you talk about adding culverts, widening or raising the causeway, cost very quickly becomes a major factor.
“There are some things we can do now,” he said. “Safety is our Number 1 priority, but we also need to look out five, ten, 15 years down the road.”
He said he now has to develop priorities for the next budget cycle which will be worked into an overall MDOT budget for the next two years. That budget, he noted, will have to work its way through the committee process and the Legislature before going to the governor for his signature.
While it is possible that work could be done on the causeway during the summer of 2013, Thebarge said that realistically, it will be during the 2014 construction season at the earliest before anything could be done.