I borrowed Lisa’s car recently to drive to Ellsworth, my old stomping grounds. The occasion was a family lunch, with three sisters, a cousin, a cousin-in-law, and two cousins once removed.
Although Ellsworth is only 24 miles from Bangor, I don’t get there much, because it almost always requires use of a car. But we were coming from Bangor, Bar Harbor, Blue Hill and Dedham, for an hour or two in the middle of the day, and Ellsworth seemed a logical central meeting place.
In Ellsworth I had one of my first jobs, at the Ellsworth American, and was paid for my words for the first time. A few years later, I worked for the Bangor Daily News bureau there. Ellsworth is where I got my driver’s license after three tries (despite acing parallel parking every time), and my first traffic ticket.
I returned to Ellsworth briefly in 2004-2005, to write for the Ellsworth Weekly, the short-lived second newspaper in a one-newspaper town. The last car I ever owned died in Ellsworth, at the garage to which it was towed after blowing a head gasket.
The road between Bangor and Ellsworth is frightful. Every year seems to bring one or two terrible accidents. It’s fraught with passing lanes over poor-visibility hills. In some stretches it’s a superhighway, in others a two-lane country road. It’s the main route between Bangor and Acadia National Park. Speeding drivers compete with lumbering RVs and commercial trucks.
And yet there’s no reliable way to travel these 24 miles other than over this treacherous road. You can go around, through Eddington and Otis, but it’s much longer. You can get up really early in the morning, drive (or bicycle) out to the Odlin Road parking area, and catch the Jackson Lab bus. I have done this: six dollars round trip to Bar Harbor. It’s the only way to get to Ellsworth and back in the same day without using a car, but you have to be ready to board the bus at 5:15 a.m.
West’s Transportation runs a daily bus serving Ellsworth and Washington County. It leaves Ellsworth at 12:25 p.m., arrives at Bangor’s Concord Coach terminal at 1:10, and departs at 3:10. Downeast Transportation runs a bus on Mondays and Fridays, but it’s primarily geared for shoppers coming to Bangor from Ellsworth. Both buses are useless for anyone wanting to make a day trip the other way.
On the day I drove it, construction crews were out paving a section of the highway. The road has been periodically widened and improved over the years, but it’s still dangerous.
Of all the traffic corridors in eastern Maine, the Bangor to Bar Harbor route, which includes Ellsworth, cries out loudest for innovative, future-oriented transportation. Imagine if tourists could fly or bus to Bangor, take a light-rail train to Bar Harbor, explore Acadia by bicycle and boat and the Island Explorer bus, all without using a car. Widening the road only invites more cars, and inevitably, more carnage. We must focus instead on long-range solutions that reduce the number of cars on this busy route.
A few weeks ago, I suggested that the proposed extension of Interstate 395 was throwing good money after bad. I received a slew of critical comments. Several readers said that I-395 and the Veterans Remembrance Bridge relieved traffic in Bangor and Brewer when they opened nearly 30 years ago, and continue to do so today.
Perhaps. But Maine is still undeveloped enough that car congestion is limited to problematic pockets: the lower section of the Maine Turnpike, Route 1 through Wiscasset and Camden, and the approaches to Bar Harbor centered on Ellsworth. But eventually, any area will reach a saturation point, beyond which there is no way to build roads fast enough to keep up with the subsequent increase in traffic.
At what point do we say, “Enough is enough,” and begin to look beyond the simple and ultimately impossible approach of building more and more road capacity? At what point do we resolve to take the money thrown at road construction and put it toward more beneficial and sustainable solutions?
We had lunch at a small eatery within walking distance of the Ellsworth American office and the revitalized Grand Theater. Several buildings were vacant, including the old Grasshopper Shop and long-ago Willey’s Department Store. But despite its commercial strips that were already garish a generation ago, and the challenges of running a sidewalk business in this age of drive-thru windows and parking lots, Ellsworth seems to be making an effort on behalf of its historic downtown. It’s a surprisingly pleasant place to hang out.
I might visit more often, if I could get there without a car.