A sign warns a driver to slow down as they enter Harpswell on Route 24. The town set up the sign, which also collects data on speeding, Tuesday, June 13. (Sam Lemonick photo)

Residents on both sides of Gurnet Strait say they have been living with speeding and dangerous driving for years. Many are frustrated that these issues persist despite their pleas to authorities.

Harpswell, Brunswick, Cumberland County and state agencies share responsibility for this section of State Route 24, which appears to make solving the problems more complicated.

The speed limit is 35 miles per hour on the mile-long stretch crossing from Great Island into Brunswick. It increases to 50 mph on the northern end as drivers pass Princes Point Road and 45 mph on the southern end as drivers approach the intersection with Cundy’s Harbor Road.

People who live and work in the area say drivers routinely travel much faster. Harpswell Road Commissioner Ron Ponziani reports that a radar speed sign placed near the Gurnet Strait bridge in 2021 recorded top speeds between 65 and 75 mph.

Many say the speeding is worse in the early morning and late afternoon, during times people would be commuting to and from work. Summer brings more cars, but several residents say that visitors and seasonal residents tend to drive more slowly. Residents also say there are more commercial vehicles using the road recently, with home construction at a relatively high level over the past five years.

Complaints go beyond just speeding. Several years ago, William Fall, who lives on the west side of the road in Harpswell, was working near the concrete steps that lead from his house down to the curb. He says he placed orange traffic cones on the shoulder where he was standing, but as a line of cars passed him, the last one nearly swiped him, running over a cone as it drove by. He remembers that the car had a New York license plate.

Fall’s neighbor on the other side of the road, Molle Pacheco, says she and her husband can’t always leave their driveway safely because of speeding and poor sightlines. To travel south, they pull out and head north, then turn around.

A few houses away, Dan Kravitz lives a little further back from the road, but he also worries about exiting his driveway. And he says he lost a pet to a car on the road, as have previous owners of the house.

Two separate Harpswell homeowners say they think about selling their homes because of the road.

On the Brunswick side, Brae Harley, owner of the Gurnet Trading Co. seafood market and restaurant with her husband, Scott, says speeding cars make it dangerous for customers to pull into and out of her parking lot. The noise, wind and blowing dust from passing traffic also affect customers sitting at her outside tables.

Marie, who has worked at Zach’s Country Store for five years, says last fall she watched cars fail to stop for a school bus that was loading or unloading students on two different occasions. She declined to give her last name.

Many of these people say they have contacted their towns and law enforcement, with mixed results. Blake Civiello, who lives in a cluster of white houses just north of the bridge, says he called the Brunswick Police Department two years ago. They told him they would put up a radar speed sign, but he never saw it.

Marie says Brunswick cruisers used to sit in the Zach’s Country Store parking lot, but she hasn’t seen them for months. Pacheco, on the other hand, saw a Brunswick officer pull a car over on this stretch in June.

Laura and Richard Green, who live on the west side of the road in the last house in Harpswell before the bridge, says Cumberland County sheriff’s deputies parked in front of their house in the past, but they haven’t seen them there in years.

Brunswick Police Chief Scott Stewart says his department has gotten some complaints about speeding in the area, but not this year. He says they have received complaints about aggressive driving.

Kerry Joyce, patrol captain for the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, reports they received one speeding complaint and deputies conducted 17 traffic details in the area between June 2022 and June 2023. He described these details as a deputy either driving or parked in a visible location, with the aim of encouraging drivers to slow down.

The agency’s data encompasses the section of Route 24 from the bridge to the intersection with Cundy’s Harbor Road, extending beyond the 35-mph zone.

Ponziani, the Harpswell road commissioner, says he has heard from the county sheriff and state police that speeding has gotten worse across the state, not just in this area. But he also sounded frustrated with the Sheriff’s Office for not patrolling more.

“I’ve asked the sheriff and I get the same old song and dance, ‘We have a lot of area to cover,'” he says. “I think we spend good money and I’d like to have good coverage on it.”

In addition to county taxes, the town of Harpswell pays Cumberland County to provide 20 hours of patrol per day, seven days a week. The cost of the contract in 2023 is $423,620.

Several residents say new speed limit signs, possibly with flashing lights, could help slow drivers. Harpswell Town Administrator Kristi Eiane tells the Anchor that flashing speed signs like those installed recently on Basin Point Road cost about $3,000.

Others suggest signs that would warn of the slower speed limit as drivers approach. William Fall has been putting up his own signs along the east side of the road asking drivers to slow down.

Ponziani says he has tried speed bumps in some places, but he has found that the noise of vehicles traveling over them often bothers residents more than speeding.

Another common suggestion is lowering the speed limit along the stretch, but town officials on both sides of the line say they lack the authority to do so. Brunswick Public Works Director Jay Astle, who says he has not heard complaints about speeding in the area, points out that the Maine Department of Transportation sets speed limits.

Eiane has heard residents’ complaints. She says the town can ask the Sheriff’s Office for more speeding details, but she knows they don’t have many deputies right now. The town can also ask the Department of Transportation to review the speed limit. She says she has shared the speed data that Ponziani collected in 2021 with the state, and with the radar speed sign back in place near the bridge as of Tuesday, June 13, the town will be gathering more data to make a case.

Ponziani says Harpswell had three radar speed signs at one point, but one was vandalized and the other stolen. That’s the reason it has taken two years to put it back at Gurnet Strait, he says.

Paul Merrill, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Transportation, says the department is not involved in or aware of any efforts to mitigate speeding near Gurnet Strait.

Area legislators are working to give local governments more control over speed limits. State Rep. Daniel Ankeles, of Brunswick, introduced legislation that would let municipalities designate bicycle and pedestrian zones with speed limits capped at 25 mph. Rep. Cheryl Golek, of Harpswell, and Sen. Mattie Daughtry, of Brunswick, co-sponsored the bill, which the Legislature will consider in 2024. Eiane spoke in favor of the bill at a public hearing.

Golek says in an email that she has heard constituents’ complaints about speeding in the area, and that she believes towns know best how to make their roads safer.

Sam Lemonick is a freelance reporter. He lives in Cundy’s Harbor.