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Investment Could Up Walkability in Maine City

A new Maine Department of Transportation program that is aimed at transforming Maine downtowns into more walkable, vibrant city centers may take on one of its biggest projects yet in Bangor.

(TNS) — A new Maine Department of Transportation program aimed at transforming Maine downtowns into walkable, vibrant city centers may take on one of its biggest projects in Bangor.

Bangor's infrastructure committee will consider signing on to the Department of Transportation's Village Partnership Initiative grant program when it meets at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, with final City Council approval possible later in the spring.

The Department of Transportation and the city would together plan major improvements to water and sewer infrastructure, sidewalks, curbing, parking, landscaping and lighting throughout the downtown area, with a focus on Main Street.

An estimated 70 percent of the Bangor project would be funded by federal grants, with the remaining 20 percent funded by the state and 10 percent by the city.

The cost is not yet available, but it would likely be in the multi-million-dollar range. If approved, the funding would represent a major investment aimed at tackling some of downtown Bangor's most persistent issues.

"These kinds of projects get complicated and expensive very quickly, so if we can get federal money and have strong local partnerships from the get-go, we'd definitely be on the path to success," said John Theriault, Bangor's city engineer. "It would be a transformative project."

If the city approves the project, one its goals would be to replace approximately a quarter of a mile of pipes and water mains along Main Street between Hammond and Union streets. Some of the pipes are more than 150 years old. The city has already replaced water mains and pipes along State, Exchange, Harlow, Water and lower Hammond streets.

Theriault said a 2018 water main break on Main Street that flooded and heavily damaged basements of multiple downtown businesses was a wake-up call to the city that it needed to give priority to replacing the Main Street water mains and pipes.

"It's a huge, disruptive, expensive project, and I believe this is the best opportunity we have to address it in a way that also saves the city money," Theriault said.

Other goals for the project could include reconstructing the area behind the Pickering Square parking garage, along the Kenduskeag Stream, which has a parking area full of potholes and cracks. It could also replace sidewalks and lighting along Central Street, Harlow Street and along Main Street to the intersection with Railroad Street.

Theriault cautioned that the project is very much in its early stages. If the city decides to apply for it, a more concrete plan will be drafted, with the help of consultants, later this year. Ground would likely not be broken until 2025 at the earliest.

The Village Partnership Initiative was launched in 2022, after the Department of Transportation worked on several individual projects to improve and redesign downtown areas in towns like Naples, Hallowell and Belgrade.

With the passage of the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in November 2021, it was feasible to codify such projects under one banner, and make it easier for municipalities to do them — and for the Maine Department of Transportation to apply for those federal funds.

Projects such as the one proposed in Bangor are aimed at creating economically vibrant, pedestrian-friendly city or town centers with lower-speed vehicular traffic, broadband access and other infrastructure improvements built in.

"We've been doing these sorts of individual projects on and off for a few years now, but with the passage of the law, now we can brand it and start advertising it to municipalities and really codify this as a way for towns to undertake projects that they perhaps could not have before," said Dale Doughty, planning director for the Department of Transportation. "The response has been really great."

One of the first projects in the grant program is a $34 million collaboration between the city of Sanford and the state that will rehabilitate most of Sanford's downtown.

The project received $25 million in federal funds, and will include the construction of a park and ride facility to accommodate carpooling for the hundreds of Sanford residents who commute every day to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery. Construction is expected to begin next year.

Other towns and cities that have begun the planning process to apply for grants include Windham and Madawaska, with federal grant approval pending for both. Presque Isle, Fort Kent, Van Buren, Rangeley, Cumberland and Norway have also begun the planning process, and, like Bangor, Brewer intends to seek city council approval to begin planning for a rehab of the Wilson Street corridor through the Village Partnership Initiative.

© 2023 the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.