OXFORD — Safety improvements slated to be made on Route 26 in front of Oxford Casino may be on hold until Oxford taxpayers can foot its estimated $150,000 part of the bill.
Maine Department of Transportation traffic engineer Steve Landry met with about 20 local and state officials, and representatives of the Oxford Casino and Hampton Inn hotel, local safety officers and residents Wednesday evening to detail the road improvements. He said the changes will help reduce speed on Route 26 and enhance the safety of pedestrians crossing the busy state highway between the casino and the four-story hotel.
Switching the existing blinking yellow traffic light to a green/yellow/red sequence, creating a timed pedestrian crosswalk and reducing speed to 40 miles per hour for a 900-foot section north and south of the intersection, will be chief among those improvements.
But the town’s share may be a tough sell, Town Manager Butch Asselin said.
“$150,000 is a sizable amount of money the town has to come up with,” he said. It would require a town meeting vote.
“We have some issues we need to take care of, Asselin said. “It’s all about the dollars and we don’t have deep pockets.”
The MDOT is proposing the costs be shared three ways: $150,000 each from the MDOT, the town and the casino, which could partner with the hotel.
Landry said it is unlikely the state would agree to set precedent by proceeding with the project before the town gets the go-ahead for funding.
State highway department officials agreed during a site visit Aug. 23 to activate the traffic light at the site and take other safety measures. The move came after the deaths of two pedestrians and the injury of two motorists.
On July 25, two businessmen from Rhode Island were killed when they tried to walk across the highway from the casino to the hotel and were struck by a pickup truck traveling north just before 11 p.m.
Two people were sent to the hospital on Aug. 12 when a casino shuttle and a car collided as the shuttle attempted to cross the highway to the hotel to pick up guests.
The accidents prompted local officials, including Police Chief Jon Tibbetts and state Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, to initiate conversations with MDOT officials about ways to improve the stretch of highway.
According to plans detailed by Landry, the northbound highway will be narrowed to one lane as it nears the casino and hotel entrances, with a turning lane into the
casino and one into the hotel. The traffic light will have a left-turn signal for those drovomg north and turning into the casino.
A pedestrian crosswalk signal would allow a person to push a button and stop all traffic while he or she crosses. An island will be created in the center of the crosswalk.
Traffic coming out of the casino will have a right-turn lane that will merge with the straight through-lane.
Traffic would be slowed to 40 mph both ways as it approaches about 450 feet from the light.
Turning on a traffic light is not a “be-all and end-all” solution to the safety issues, Landry said. At times, traffic signals cause problems as well as solve them, he said.
Landry said he has seen an surge in rear-end crashes as some new traffic lights are installed across the state.
However, he said, as it stands now, if a pedestrian is trying to cross the highway at the casino and they look north and see no car on the crest of the hill, they will only be able to get three-quarters of the way across the highway before a car that is just out of sight reaches them at current speeds and without any other safety measures, he said.
Several residents questioned why the casino and hotel were not required initially to put better motorist and pedestrian measures into their construction and why they are not fully financially responsible for the future improvements.
Landry said when the casino was initially built there were no concerns for pedestrians crossing because the Hampton Inn hadn’t been built. The hotel was required to put a pedestrian crosswalk in, but under its driveway entrance permit, it did not have to happen until the traffic light had been switched from blinking yellow to the green/yellow/red sequence.
Those costs for that part of the work are still the hotel’s responsibility, he said.
If the funding comes through in time, the work could begin next spring when the state plans to overlay that stretch of Route 26 as part of unrelated improvements.
The state recently donated a speed trailer to the town, which has been placed by the casino to indicate motorists’ speed as they pass it.