In 2016, Governor Dannel Malloy announced plans to finally remove the stop lights on Route 9 in Middletown. Seven years later, construction has not started — and there isn’t a definitive plan to start.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Mark Pazniokas to discuss his article, “CT’s long, winding trip to fix a small stretch of Route 9,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

You can read his story here.

Episode Transcript

WSHU: Hello, Mark. You write that it’s been difficult fixing this short stretch of Route 9 in Middletown. Now, Route 9 is a major highway in Connecticut. Why are the traffic lights on it?

MP: Route 9 is a highway that basically grew up. That route was there for a long time before the Interstate Highway System. And now it has been incorporated as a state highway. But it connects to three interstates: I-95 on the shoreline, 91 and then 84. And the problem is the only way to get in and out of Middletown onto Route 9 requires traffic lights, it’s an intersection. So there are any number of people I’m sure in your circle and mine who drive down this limited access highway to come upon these traffic lights, which can be a shock. And so it’s the source of long backups for weekday commuters and then certainly in the summertime, people trying to get to the shoreline beaches.

WSHU: There’s been a lot of accidents on that stretch.

MP: The two sets of traffic lights, and then a nearby ramp, make it probably the most dangerous stretch of highway in Connecticut. So there are a bunch of reasons to improve this stretch of road. One is safety. The other one is smoother traffic which of course contributes to safety. But the reason I wrote the story, there’s really a broader impact, which is this is really a case study for the challenges that the DOT and Connecticut and elsewhere are facing now.

We are in a different era of highway construction. We’re in the era of the do over or the makeover, where you have infrastructure that was built in the 50s and 60s and 70s that is at the end of its useful life. And these things need to be rebuilt. And the question is, can you undo some of the damages that were done to cities?

WSHU: Aesthetically, these things don’t look very nice, do they?

MP: No, and it’s not just the aesthetics, it’s access. In Hartford, I-84 cut the city in half and cut the north end of Hartford off from downtown. The interchange with I-91 really consumes a lot of land on the riverfront. Across the river in East Hartford you have cloverleafs that eat up 10, 20 acres of developable land. One of the reasons I revisited this Middletown project in part was because I covered the press conference seven years ago where former Governor Dan Malloy said we have a solution, but we are gonna have to be patient, it’ll take until 2023. Well, of course 2023 is this year, and not only is the project not done, they’re still tinkering with different design elements.

WSHU: So why has it taken that long? This big announcement was made seven years ago, and there’s nothing to show on the ground for it. Why has it taken that long? What are the local people talking about, the local officials?

MP: Well, the good news for the DOT is this is seen as a positive, believe it not. So the delays are due in large measure to the DOT being very sensitive to stakeholders in and around Middletown. Because every tweak you make about a highway exit or removing traffic lights, you change traffic patterns. So in Middletown, there were concerns about downtown being cut off from highway traffic, or conversely, would it be overwhelmed with traffic. And if you don’t have the lights on the highway, when people come off the highway, if they’re more standard exits, they’re gonna hit a traffic light. You must design it in a way that doesn’t then back up onto the highway.

There’s also an environmental justice neighborhood that’s literally in the shadow of the Arrigoni Bridge, and its only access in and out is directly onto Route 9, which is very dangerous. So that has been one of the design elements of how to maintain and improve access to this neighborhood. They have a way to do that, and they’re gonna actually start work on that early next year. There’s a railroad line there and they’re going to put a crossing there.

So it’s been interesting to look at the back and forth, they are up to alternative 11 on removing the lights, they are testing it. Now they have these very cool databases that they can use using cell phone data. Because every cell phone is really a tracking device. So over time, there is a lot of data about where people begin and end their trips through that part of the state. And they animate this stuff, they then introduce different variables about, you know, closing an exit or changing other parts of traffic patterns. So they are doing that now, they hope in the fall to have another round of public input.

Hopefully, they will decide which concept to go forward with. So you know, the thing they rolled out in 2016, a revised version of that is still very much in the mix, which would have been raising the southbound lanes so northbound traffic could go under the lane into Middletown, but it’s you know, it’s a bit more complicated than that. So that’s why it’s taken so long.

WSHU: And also it restricts access to the waterfront. Does it not?

MP: Yes, that’s very much a concern. You have a very tight spot, you have the river, you have a railroad line, you have buildings, including public buildings, like the courthouse for that part of the state. And Middletown is understandably very determined to improve access to their waterfront, they have a walkway along there. There is a park and it’s similar to what you’re seeing in Hartford.

WSHU: That’s the I-91, 1-84 Interchange project in Hartford.

MP: That’s right. And the DOT is going to be rolling out its concept for that this summer, they actually went back to the drawing boards three years ago, they suspended work on just how to replace the elevated portion of it for the viaduct. And they accepted a challenge from a coalition of community people saying this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to really remake how the highway system would work through Hartford, and even across the river in East Hartford. So that has been what they have been working on for three years. They’re going to roll that out again, sometime this summer.

But the Middletown project is a much smaller version that illustrates the challenges of how you break huge projects into smaller pieces. The DOT talks about independent utility, which just means if you do these smaller pieces, you want them to be of use, even if the larger project does not go forward. If you think about some of the highway interchanges that were built two years ago, there’s one in Farmington called the stack. And it was unused for years. And now it’s partially used, ironically enough to connect Route 9 to Route 84. But when they did these major projects, they had plans that went forward for decades at a time and not everything was built and in most cases, thank God it wasn’t because there were plans to put an interstate highway through Bushnell Park and downtown Hartford, for example.

WSHU: This is fascinating stuff, Mark. So where we stand now is that there might be some progress after this latest plan, and the public hearings are going to be in a few months?

MP: They’re hoping in the fall. They have to finish the traffic study. And then they’re going to take this version public. And they say they want it to be apples to apples with the other one that’s still in contention. And then if everything goes right, there’s still a lot of work to do because they have conceptual plans now, but then you have to do what I would call construction drawings so you can go out to bid. And if all goes well, they are talking about construction beginning in early summer of 2026. So it’ll be exactly a decade from the day that I listened to Dan Malloy, and a former DOT Commissioner Jim Redeker explain how they had found a solution to the puzzle of how to get rid of those lights without totally messing up the city of Middletown.

WSHU: So we’d say that slow progress is good progress as far as this is concerned.

MP: Urban coalitions certainly think so. They think this is far preferable than the DOT just coming in and literally and figuratively, bulldozing their way through their cities.

Long Story Short takes you behind the scenes at the home of public policy journalism in Connecticut. Each week WSHU’s Ebong Udoma joins us to rundown the Sunday Feature with our reporters. We also present specials on CT Mirror’s big investigative pieces.