On the first day of summer in 2016, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and transportation officials greeted reporters on a sunny parking deck in Middletown, a spot affording views of a placid bend in the Connecticut River and a treacherous half-mile of state highway.
They came to announce a solution to a puzzle: How to remove two sets of traffic lights on Route 9, a contributor to about 260 crashes in three years on what otherwise is a limited-access highway, without cutting off the city’s riverfront or its rebounding downtown.
Building two bridges to allow northbound traffic to exit into the downtown under raised southbound lanes was the “minimalist” answer, as described then by the state’s chief highway engineer. Malloy urged patience: A final design and construction would take years, completion unlikely before 2023.
Seven years later, Connecticut has a new governor, the state Department of Transportation has a new commissioner, and Middletown has a new mayor. But as another summer approaches, the signals remain on Route 9, snarling traffic on a highway connecting I-91 and I-84 in Greater Hartford to Old Saybrook, I-95 and shoreline beaches.
It turns out the Rubik’s Cube nature of highway do-overs — how to fix one problem without creating two others — is harder than it looks.
Responding to concerns about the concept Malloy presented and revisions that followed, the DOT is now working on Alternative 11, assessing suggestions by Middletown officials in November. Alternative 1, the plan presented in 2016 and revised after public input, remains in contention.
DOT now aims to settle on a conceptual design by June 2024, produce construction drawings by November 2025, seek bids a few months later, then start construction in June 2026 — exactly one decade after Malloy’s press conference.
The complexities of redesigning a relatively short stretch of highway to the satisfaction of myriad stakeholders around Middletown, a city of 47,000 at the center of the state, has been an instructive, if humbling, undertaking for a short-staffed DOT with far greater ambitions and challenges.
Notably, the delay hasn’t drawn criticism from Middletown’s mayor, Ben Florsheim, or his predecessor, Dan Drew, who both attended the 2016 news conference. Or from Rep. Roland Lemar, a New Haven Democrat and close observer of the DOT as co-chair of the Transportation Committee.
“It’s because DOT has been responsive and open to suggestions from the local community about how to ensure that that roadway serves the city of Middletown, not divides it,” Lemar said. “Taking a more deliberative and more community-focused approach has led to delay, but it’s a good one.”
Highway designers have revised plans repeatedly at the request of Middletown, meeting monthly with city officials as they attempt to balance concerns about river views and access with potential impacts on downtown traffic, historic properties, railroad tracks and an isolated and long-neglected neighborhood, Miller-Bridge.
“It feels to me like we’ve been listened to,” said Florsheim, who succeeded Drew as mayor in 2019. Drew offered a similar assessment and added, “I think everybody knew it was a very complicated project that required a lot of public input.”
Still, others have stopped following the twists and turns of a slowly evolving reality show about a highway makeover. They just want to know how it all ends.
“I am horribly cynical at this point about the process, and I don’t think without reason,” said Dmitry D’Alessandro, the owner of a downtown framing shop and a Miller-Bridge resident. “I don’t care anymore. They’ve said that they’re going to finally do it. I will believe them when they finally do it.”
Don Shubert, the president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, said the painfully slow process of birthing highway projects, often more tied to regulatory and permitting issues than public reaction, long has frustrated an industry with an insatiable appetite for work.
“Ten years from conception to construction — all over the country — is far too long,” Shubert said. “We need a process where we’re not doing everything, then stepping back and doing it all over again.”
Shubert was speaking generally, not about the repeated reviews and revisions of the Route 9 project. He acknowledged that remaking highways in built-out areas is especially complicated.
“There’s no easy digging in Connecticut,” he said.
Connecticut, like much of the U.S., is deep in a reappraisal of how the construction of tens of thousands miles of highways in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s hollowed out American cities, carved up neighborhoods and walled off natural assets like the Connecticut River in Hartford and Middletown.
Much of that highway infrastructure, such as the I-84 viaduct that bisects and overshadows a long swath of Hartford, is nearing the end of useful life. The need for rebuilding comes in a time when best practices call for transportation plans that are multi-modal tapestries, woven to connect communities.
Michael Calabrese, the chief of highway design, said the DOT has been paying increasing attention to “context-sensitive design” for 25 of his 27 years at the agency.
“Basically, it’s go out and talk to the public,” he said. “The more you talk to people, the more you can figure out the best solution for everybody. So for Connecticut, it’s not a recent mind shift. We’ve been doing this for a long time. So projects just take a while.”
Earlier generations of highway designers focused on the most efficient ways of moving cars from Point A to Point B, less so with the impacts on the communities through which they passed, destroying some neighborhoods and isolating others.
“There has been a cultural change,” said Garrett Eucalitto, the commissioner of DOT.
With a background in transportation planning and finance, both in Hartford and in Washington, Eucalitto embodies and reinforces that change. He was recruited by his predecessor, Joseph Giulietti, and groomed to take over when Giulietti retired in January at the start of Gov. Ned Lamont’s second term.
“We’ve seen the impact of the past decisions. You look at what happened to Hartford,” Eucalitto said, referring to the impact of highways built a half-century ago. “And it had lasting damage on the community that now we’re going to have to undo.”
Three years ago, the DOT halted work on how to replace the Hartford viaduct and accepted a challenge from a public-private partnership to think more broadly and much, much bigger.
Designers shifted to working on a conceptual plan for reconstructing not just I-84 but its riverfront interchange with I-91, a section of I-91 that stands between the downtown and river and, possibly, the clover-leaf exchanges that consume acres of valuable land on the other side of the river in East Hartford.
Costing billions and requiring 15 years to complete, it would be the mother of all highway makeovers.
“The goal is this summer to roll it out publicly: ‘Here are early-action projects. Here are the pieces. And here’s what the future of Hartford can look like if all this is completed,’” Eucalitto said.
The Middletown project is a smaller-scale dress rehearsal for the more ambitious production in Hartford, which most likely would have to be designed, funded and built in stages, given its cost and size.
With more than 500 vacancies, the DOT is hampered by staffing shortages. Eucalitto said staffing has not been an issue in Middletown but is a factor in the projects lining up behind it.
Over time, the redesign and reconstruction of Route 9 through Middletown has both grown in scope and split into smaller projects: two are complete, one recently broke ground, and another is cleared to go to the bid in the fall. Each possesses an “independent utility.”
In other words, they are worth doing on their own, even if the final piece of the puzzle — how to eliminate two signal-controlled intersections while maintaining safe access on and off the highway — still is being designed.
“So if we never get rid of the signals, all these projects still have a purpose and a need, and they’re beneficial to the environment,” said Steve Hall, the project manager.
Construction recently began on a $56 million project to remake an awkwardly angled ramp that connects Route 17 to Route 9. From a stop sign, drivers must look over their left shoulder for an opening to dash into northbound traffic with no acceleration lane.
It was the site of 319 crashes over a recent three-year period, even more than the 260 attributed to the nearby traffic signals.
Hall said the on-again, off-again conversation over the feasibility of removing the Route 9 lights gained traction in 2014, when the public reacted skeptically to DOT plans to fix the Route 17 ramp without touching the two nearby traffic signals.
“The design back then was pretty similar to what we’re actually building,” Hall said. “But we got comments back then saying, ‘You got to do something about these signals. How can you fix that, and we have two traffic signals on Route 9?’ So we kind of shifted focus.”
The ramp project, which requires a new bridge and other changes, was put on hold. Two years later, Malloy, and James P. Redeker, then the DOT commissioner, came back with a fast-track plan to not only fix the ramp but remove the traffic lights.
“Real simply, it was just a let’s-look-at-this-from-a-minimalist-scope,” Thomas A. Harley, the chief engineer, said then. “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.’ ”
It was not entirely minimalist. Keeping traffic flowing as it comes off the highway at Washington Street also would require construction of a rotary. Early reviews were not good.
The community complained that one flyover destroyed views of the river when looking down Washington Street from Main Street and that other aspects compromised historic properties, complicated riverfront access and appeared to overwhelm the downtown with traffic that no longer could easily access Route 9.
“Whatever we do on Route 9, there’s a perception that means Main Street will bear the burden of what we’re doing,” Hall said. “There’s a perception DOT wants to fix the Route 9 problem by sending all the traffic to Main Street.”
Engineers experimented with revisions that would move a flyover north and use an open structure instead of retaining walls, opening river views. They also have considered closing off one of the two downtown exits to either north or south traffic, simplifying the design.
Seven of the 11 alternatives were discarded after internal scrutiny. Three others have been subjected to detailed and sophisticated reviews designed to measure how traffic flows would be changed, using big data sold by cell phone providers to a Virginia company, Streetlight Data.
The fourth, Alternative 11, is now getting the same analysis.
Cellphones act as tracking devices, their movements collected over time. The data feeds into animated simulations showing DOT engineers where traffic now goes and how it would be affected by variables ranging from the closure of an exit to changing the cycles of traffic lights blocks away.
“Anytime we close highway access, those cars have to go somewhere, and we have to figure out where they go and then evaluate the impacts,” Hall said. “So with that traffic model we have, we’re able to basically plug in a closure of that exit ramp and see where these vehicles go.”
As engineers considered options, decisions were made in 2018 to break out portions into separate projects.
Sidewalk “bump outs” at intersections along Main Street were installed as safety measures that calm traffic and shorten the distance for pedestrians crossing the street, an immediate improvement that anticipated increased traffic once the Route 9 lights are removed.
Turning lanes were added at St. John’s Square, where Hartford Avenue takes traffic up a hill from Route 9 to the north end of Main Street, improving traffic flow now and preventing traffic from backing up onto the highway once the signal-controlled intersection becomes an exit ramp.
A broad pedestrian bridge to the river is in the design.
And the DOT listened to public suggestions that it do something for the residents of Miller and Bridge streets, a neighborhood literally in the shadow of the Arrigoni Bridge. The only access is directly off Route 9, which is dangerous and would become impractical without the traffic lights.
Two decades ago, Middletown tried buying out homeowners with the intention of erasing the neighborhood.
“We were told we didn’t matter,” said D’Allesandro, the merchant who owns a home on Bridge Street.
They do now. The neighborhood has taken on the status of an “environmental justice” community under federal law, requiring the DOT to ensure it does not suffer from the final design.
The plan now is to connect Miller-Bridge to the rest of the city by building an at-grade crossing over the railroad tracks. It is a less-than-ideal solution the DOT long resisted but eventually deemed safer than continued access to Route 9.
Hall said the rail crossing had its own complications, requiring negotiations with the railroad and a vote of the General Assembly. It goes to bid by year’s end, with construction next year.
As far as the last piece of the puzzle, the removal of the traffic lights?
The choices are narrowed to Alternative 1, the revised original with a largely finished conceptual plan, and Alternative 11, the latecomer that, among other things, would exit traffic further south and use local roads for access to the downtown.
The traffic analysis of Alternative 11 is underway, slated to be finished in September.
“We’re going to reevaluate One and Eleven to get them on the same page, so we can really go apples to apples, Hall said.
Public comment will be opened in the fall. Once again, Middletown will be asked its opinion.