OXFORD — A traffic engineer for the state Department of Transportation, said activating the traffic lights and putting an island on Route 26 by the Oxford Casino where two pedestrians were plowed down last summer, may actually increase the number of serious crashes in that area.
“You can be setting up some pretty significant crashes that aren’t happening today. You’ve got a free-for-all up there now,” said state Traffic Engineer Steve Landry.
Landry met with the Board of Selectmen on June 7 during a special meeting to discuss the proposed revisions to the area on Route 26 by the entrance to the Oxford Casino and Hampton Inn.
Two Rhode Island businessmen were struck and killed by a motorist while crossing the street on foot in July 2017. A second serious accident occurred later in the summer involving a motorist and an Oxford Casino shuttle crossing to the Hampton Inn.
Local and state officials, including Maine DOT, met at the Oxford Casino entrance way last year to discuss their concerns about the safety of the intersection as the result of the serious accidents.
Subsequently DOT detailed the plan that will reduce the speed in the area and redesign the intersection to eventually change the flashing yellow signal to a timed green-yellow-red sequence. Additionally a countdown push button pedestrian crossing and islands will be installed.
The traffic light was part of the original DOT driveway permit but did not require activation because the motorist count was too low at the time.
Landry said last week that there there is a “dark spot” in the middle of the intersection and when the two pedestrians crossed over from the Casino to the Hampton Inn they would have been nearly three-quarters of the way across the road before a car was visible.
“They were in the middle of no man’s land,” he said.
Landry told officials he has concerns about activating the traffic light because that move in other similar areas has sometimes resulted in more accidents, particularly rear-end crashes.
“This is really sprawl, not where we would like something like this,” said Landry who noted that the construction of the Oxford Casino further “exasperated” the traffic situation.
Sprawl usually describes the expansion of populations into low-density and usually car-dependent communities such as Oxford.
Police Chief Mike Ward said his experience also shows that some of the most serious injuries occur at traffic lights. WalMart, he said, tends to have the most serious accidents and they are rear-end accidents.
Landry said the DOT hopes the reduced speed and the establishment of islands that will run north and south of the traffic light and squeeze traffic to a single lane northbound in that area, should help reduce the accident rate.
But the island design may be impacted by a local business.
Shawn Morse, whose family owns Crestholm Farms farm stand that is situated near the intersection, told Landry at the meeting that his family is concerned about the impact of the islands on traffic turning in and out of the farm stand. Landry said adjustments can be made to the plan if necessary and he is willing to speak to the farm owners.
Originally the cost was estimated to be about $400,000 to $500,000 (with a three-way split) but that cost was reduced to about $180,000 (or $60,000 each) when the state determined it could do the work as part of a planned overlay project on Route 26 schedule to start in July.
That $980,000 overlay project is intended improve a stretch of Route 26 just north of the Mechanic Falls line and extend northerly 2.26 miles past the Oxford Casino.
The project hinges on the three-way financial agreement between the state, Oxford Casino and the Town of Oxford.
The pedestrian “countdown” crosswalk would not be installed until the lights were activated. The cost of the countdown unit is the Hampton Inn’s and not part of the $180,000 projected project cost, he said.
Town Manager Butch Asselin told voters at the June 9 Annual Town Meeting that about $50,000 had been set aside in the Capital Improvement Account, which was approved, as part of the town’s share. However, Asselin hopes to meet with DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt to talk about getting a waiver of the town’s share.
If the town had said “no” to funding its share, the intersection project would have been halted, Landry said. An agreement must now be signed between the parties before anything further work, such as going out to bid, will occur.
If all goes according to plan, the overlay project will be bid out in mid-July. The intersection project would be done possibly next fall to in the spring of 2019.