Middletown — On the first full day of summer, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy stood under the midday sun on the roof of a parking garage overlooking a section of Route 9 that has frustrated generations of weekday commuters and vacationers headed to the Connecticut shore. He promised relief, through probably not until 2023.
Thomas A. Harley, the chief engineer for engineering and construction at the state Department of Transportation, stood to the side Tuesday as Malloy talked about conceptual plans that represent a departure for a DOT that once considered elaborate tunnels and flyovers to bypass two traffic lights.
The lights – and the intersections they control – bring motorists to a halt on what otherwise is a limited-access highway that runs between I-95 in Old Saybrook and I-84 on the Farmington-West Hartford line. Too often, they bring motorists to a screeching, thudding halt: The stretch experiences about 60 accidents a year.
It is an engineering challenge since Route 9 is hemmed in by the Connecticut River to the east and a rail line and buildings to the west, including the courthouse parking garage on which Malloy staged his press conference with officials from Middletown and the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce.
The new approach is to elevate the southbound lane over the two intersections, eliminating the need for the two traffic lights.
In the existing, tight right of way, engineers determined there was sufficient room for northbound traffic to exit by making a left turn under the southbound lane and into a rotary that would keep traffic moving into downtown Middletown.
At the second light, traffic exiting the downtown for points north would make a left turn under the southbound lane at a second new bridge.
“Real simply, it was just a let’s-look-at-this-from-a-minimalist-scope. What exactly is the problem and only address that problem,” Harley said. “When you look at it from that perspective, you come with ‘let’s just raise the southbound [lanes] so the turns can be made underneath it’.”
Malloy offered a less technical account of what is now estimated to be a $75 million project.
“I’ll tell you my version of it. I told [Commissioner James] Redeker to get me a design, and I wanted it quickly. And I wanted the people of Middletown to know we’re going to take care of what is a design flaw from the 1950s. And I wanted it done in a prompt fashion.”
Of course, prompt is relative, especially in an era of staffing cutbacks across state government.
“The design phase could go on as long as 2020. I’m hoping that can be expedited,” Malloy said. “I’m asking that this be a front-burner case. And then construction would be completed no later than 2023 under that time line. Again, I’m hoping that we can expedite construction, if we can expedite design and approval.”
Mayor Dan Drew and Larry McHugh, the president of the chamber of commerce, said they supported a plan they hope will end traffic backups on a highway that carries 70,000 motor vehicles daily.
“This project is a long time in the making. It s going to have a tremendously positive effect on the city of Middletown and on the people of Connecticut writ large,” Drew said.
The chamber opposed earlier proposals that would have sped traffic by eliminating or restricting access to downtown Middletown. McHugh says the lights have been an issue during his 33-year tenure leading the chamber
“This plan keeps the access into the center core,” he said. “It does help out the traffic on Route 9, both north and southbound.”