LEWISTON — It’s a problem of excess pavement, something that’s plaguing cities and towns across the country.

“How do we rethink that whole process?” asked Maine traffic engineer Tom Errico at the opening of the second BuildMaine Conference on Thursday.

“It really is about finding the desired outcome of what cities really think they should have for a roadway system,” he said. A key need is to make pedestrian-scale businesses more important than cars and commuting.

The conference held at Bates Mill No. 1. drew about 240 developers, architects, planners and municipal officials from around the state.

Speakers, including Errico, Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte, Portland developer Vin Veroneau and urban design planner John Anderson, talked about using some of the latest theories to kick new life into downtowns.

Errico noted that most busy city arteries are designed to handle levels of traffic that occur only once or twice each day. The rest of the time, they are wide strips of asphalt that don’t provide any economic benefit.

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“Ultimately, when you make sure your roadway is operating at an adequate capacity just for the automobile, you end up with roadways that have way too much pavement,” he said. “It’s a very incomplete roadway section. Think about crossing that roadway. Think about the speed.”

LaBonte gave a concrete example: his city’s idea to test narrowing Court Street this summer from four travel lanes to two in an attempt to slow down traffic and boost the value of the downtown on either side. The idea is being reviewed by state transportation officials. LaBonte noted it’s not a popular idea among Twin Cities commuters.

However, the reason to do it is economic. He noted that Auburn continues to lose residential value even as the national economy rebounds, and most of those losses are in the thickly settled downtown. The city has lost $58 million in value since 2011, when the recession ended.

“So when we think about growing value, this number is one that I go to and one that I talk to staff about,” LaBonte said. “Losing value creates a disincentive for development and it makes it harder to attract people to enter that environment.”

Slowing down Court Street might help, so it’s worth testing, he said.

“Court Street was not always four lanes and a high-speed thoroughfare,” he said. “It had fewer lanes, it had on-street parking. If you go back in time, the merchants at the time said what would happen if you took away on-street parking? One merchant said two minutes saved getting through town is not worth losing this business.”

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Anderson, the urban design planner, talked about problems planners and developers face nationwide.

Most come in the form of city officials, public works directors and fire marshals with outdated building and development codes. Those can push projects into ignoring local needs and markets.

He urged local developers to step forward and work to tackle those problems.

“They’ve been saying for years that somebody should do something,” Anderson said. “Somebody should do something about that parking lot. Well, I think we should be really sober about this. Nobody is coming to develop the buildings that will make your town complete. Nobody is coming from out of town. They all have the same problems.”

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Also on this page: Social media coverage of the #BuildMaine conference


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