Wiscasset voters narrowly approve controversial MDOT traffic plan

Wiscasset voters are voting on a controversial referendum to force the Maine D-O-T to change its plans for downtown traffic improvements

*UPDATE* 6/13 10:30 p.m. – The Wiscasset referendum on the Maine DOT downtown traffic plan has passed, 400-323.

The vote sought to tell the MDOT to return to the original guidelines it set for the project a year ago. It will now apparently be up to selectmen to decide what, if anything, they should do as a result. That is not clear tight now. The MDOT has said it intends to "stay the course" on the project.

Also, two "new" members were elected to the Wiscasset select board: Robert Blagdon and Katherine Martin Savage. Both have served before, though are not incumbents.

WISCASSET, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — Voters in Wiscasset can be forgiven if they felt a sense of déjà vu on Tuesday.

For the second year in a row, townspeople were asked to weigh in on the Maine DOT's controversial plan for traffic improvements in the village. That plan passed last year in a non-binding referendum, which led to a vote by the town select board in favor of the project.

The MDOT wants to remove parking on Main Street -- which is also U.S. Route 1 -- and widen sidewalks and install traffic signals and walk lights. They say the goal is to improve safety and help reduce summertime traffic delays on Route 1, a notorious problem in the town.

However, a local citizens group called the Wiscasset Taxpayers Alliance has been fighting the project for much of the past year, saying the DOT has backed away from assurances it gave the town. Among those issues was a decision by the MDOT to not seek federal funds for the project and therefore not be required to go through a historic preservation review process.

The Taxpayers Alliance was able to gather enough petition signatures to put a referendum question on Tuesday's long town meeting ballot, ordering the MDOT to follow those original assurances in made in 2016.

MDOT project manager Ernie Martin told NEWS CENTER the referendum question shows a misunderstanding of what the agency has said and done. He also predicted townspeople will be happy with the final project.

"I honestly think it's [going to] be a shot in the arm for Wiscasset when it's done," Martin said, who believes the finished project would send a message to "come see us, we're bike friendly, pedestrian friendly, business friendly."

Bill Sutter of the Taxpayers Alliance sees it very differently. Sutter predicted the project will damage the village.

"Removing on-street parking in the central business district is a recipe for disaster for the local businesses," he said.

And despite the controversy, there is a question whether the referendum will have any actual impact. Town Manager Marion Anderson said she believes the MDOT can do what it wants, regardless of the vote of the town, because it's "a state project on a state highway."

Sutter said he believes town select board members can influence the project if they want because Wiscasset still needs to sign a project agreement with the MDOT. Two select board seats are up for grabs in Tuesday's election, too.

Martin, the project manager, said Tuesday the MDOT intends to "stay the course," regardless of the outcome of the vote.

© 2017 WCSH-TV


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