WISCASSET — An Oct. 5 public meeting about design elements of the Maine Department of Transportation project intended to improve traffic on Route 1 became a sound-off for opposition to the project.

The hearing, led by MDOT project manager Ernest Martin, was intended to gather opinions on design elements of the project, like what sort of tree grates to use and what the style of street lamps should be.

After a brief presentation on the subject, public comments during the question and answer session were devoted more to opposition of the entire project than the design elements, with occasional harsh criticism of both supporters and opponents.

The meeting came just two days after the Wiscasset Select Board voted 3 -2 to oppose the project, or more specifically to oppose “Option 2.”

Option 2 was one of three options proposed to improve traffic flow through downtown presented by MDOT in 2016. It would eliminate on-street parking, demolish Haggett Garage and replace it with more parking, install traffic lights, and create even more parking along Railroad Avenue.

A number of business owners  publicly opposed Option 2 soon after residents voted for the plan, saying the elimination of on-street parking would be devastating to the downtown.

Chris Bobay, a traffic engineer with VHB who has been working on the project, explained that the changes are intended to increase the capacity of the roadway by 300 cars per hour.

Currently, he said, the road can sustain between 800 and 900 cars an hour. However, during the summer months the road typically has 1,100 to 1,200 cars passing through.

A big part of increasing the amount of cars that can go through town is removing the parking, he said. “That capacity number drops by 15 to 20 percent just because of the maneuvers of vehicles pulling into and out of those spaces.”

Despite the changes made by the project, traffic backups are still likely to occur at peak times at the height of the busy season.

“Under the heavy traffic conditions, where you have two- or three-mile backups, this won’t solve that situation, it just won’t,” said Bobay. “The department has never – since day one – said that what is being proposed here is the silver bullet to fix the situation.”

An outspoken critic of the project, Bill Sutter, said if, even by the project’s own standards, traffic relief would not be enough, moving forward with the project doesn’t make sense.

“That means your seven-mile backup is going to be six miles; it’s not going to solve the problem. The problem is going to still exist,” he said. “It is going to destroy their businesses. Why would we support something that is not going to solve the problem, that is going to destroy a viable business district, and it’s not going to work?”

Seaver Leslie, another resident and a member of the MDOT Advisory Committee that helped choose design elements of the project, has been publicly opposed to Option 2 for some time.

He’s heading the organization “Citizens for Sensible Solutions,” and brought along posters calling for a new conversation about the project with Gov. Paul LePage and MDOT Commissioner David Bernhardt.

“We have to take this seriously. We have a thriving downtown right now. The storefront parking is essential. We have to talk to the commissioner, and we have to talk to the engineers about how we get back to the very sensible Option 1,” said Leslie.

Option 1 would retain some on-street parking while  installing traffic and pedestrian crossing lights.

Senator Dana Dow, who represents District 13 (which includes several towns in Lincoln County) said he has recently introduced legislation to stop the project from moving forward.

“I’m introducing a bill that will slow the process down and make the process take a look at Option 1, which is the one not to eliminate the parking,” said Dow.

Whether or not the bill moves forward is up to the will of the legislature, he said, adding, “I will flat out say that I am not in favor of eliminating parking. I think to do so Wiscasset would be shooting itself in both feet economically.”

Not all of the comments were in opposition to the project. Multiple residents referenced the fact that the town overwhelmingly supported Option 2 when asked at a June 2016 referendum. At the time, over 60 percent of residents were in favor.

Since then, however, a second vote was taken in 2017 which showed residents no longer supported it due to changes since the initial presentation of the design.

On Oct. 4, the select board reiterated its lack of support for the project in a 3 – 2 vote, which Martin referenced during his presentation.

“It’s loud and clear what’s transpired here over the last couple days,” said Martin, adding that as project manager, his responsibility isn’t to decide which project to go with, and that he has no authority to stop a project he’s given.

His job, he said, is to accomplish the project given to him by MDOT. “My job is to keep moving forward.”

But he said, “I have to take those back to Augusta and see what happens.”

It is likely at this point that the project is going to move forward regardless of the complaints of some residents and business owners, according to MDOT Press Secretary Ted Talbot.

“With the substantial public funds already expended on the project, MaineDOT is in no position to change course because the new Select Board makeup is now split 3-2 regarding support of the concept,” said Talbot. “The project is designed to improve the notorious, long-standing traffic problems which have regional significance beyond Wiscasset.”