Sunday, March 18, 2018

The DOT Plan: Bad for Middletown

Public Meeting:  Thursday, March 22, at Middletown High at 7 pm.  The public is welcome to comment.  Details of the DOT plan are available here, here and here 

This Thursday evening, the DOT will be in town to hear Middletown’s reaction to their proposal to make changes to Main Street and the North End so the traffic lights on Route 9 can be removed.   

It’s a great plan - except for Middletown.  It solves the Route 9 traffic problem, but it does so at our expense.

I’m not a neutral observer on this issue.  I’ve lived in the North End of Middletown since the late ‘90s and I love it here.  I run a business downtown.  I love walking to work, going to restaurants and joining with my neighbors - both residents and businesses - in making our town better. 

But I really hate when a plan comes up that threatens the progress we’ve made.  This is that kind of plan.

In brief, this plan removes the light at Exit 15, where Route 9 meets Washington Street.  Instead, there’s a new left flyover lane from Route 9 Northbound which brings the traffic from Route 9N onto Rapallo Ave and then Main Street; this requires changes to Downtown Middletown to keep the traffic flowing.  (Another part of the plan removes the stoplight at Exit 16/Hartford Avenue, which isn’t addressed in this post).

Here are a few problems with the plan to remove the Exit 15 light, in no particular order:

The new flyover lane from Route 9 lands on Rapallo Avenue

This is a lousy thing to do to the people who live on Rapallo and the surrounding streets.  Not coincidentally, this is a racially diverse and economically disadvantaged neighborhood.  There’s a regrettable history of putting highway ramps in marginalized neighborhoods - if you’re not aware, please google it.  This ramp is an overpass, a level higher than DeKoven Drive and the railroad - a truly imposing structure.  Cars on Main Street can no longer turn onto Rapallo, which will add new traffic to Green & Ferry as the only way to get to DeKoven Drive.  

New, unhappy traffic on Main

This plan re-directs the Exit 15 traffic which currently heads up Washington Street and sends those cars to the corner of Rapallo and Main.  Most of these people are just trying to continue up Washington, towards Meriden and other points West.  Or maybe they’re trying to get to the center of Main Street.  Either way, they’re now blocks away from where they want to be.  Currently, traffic coming from Rapallo to Main is relatively light and even so, it’s a factor in the gridlock that happens at rush-hour at the messy intersection of Main/Grand/Rapallo.  The new plan surely adds time and aggravation for everyone already driving on this stretch.  More congestion, more road rage, more delay.  Which leads to the next two issues:  short cuts and bump-outs.

Pressure to cut through the North End

This new plan will push more cars to find short-cuts to avoid Main Street.  As it is, cars zip through the North End trying to get further up Washington, using Spring, Grand or Liberty, and then Pearl or High. This has gotten worse in recent years.  It’s made drop-off time a hazard at Macdonough School and a regular thing to have your side-mirror knocked off your car when you’re parked on the street.  It’s not good for quality of life, and that’s not just bad for people who live here - all of Middletown needs the North End to be a healthy and livable neighborhood.  The DOT apparently anticipates this added pressure on the North End, because they’re proposing widening Grand Street where it meets Main.

The bump-outs on Main

For the sake of making the cars flow faster on Main, the DOT wants to make the pedestrian walk-light cycle shorter by adding bump-outs on Main Street.  A “bump-out” brings the sidewalk/curb out to the end of the parked car at intersections so it takes less time to cross the street.  Local government has considered this idea a few times over the years - initially favorably but always rejecting it after study because there are a few reasons it doesn’t easily suit our Main Street.  One is that we ease traffic congestion by informally letting cars use that “bump-out” area to wait while making a right turn, so that drivers behind them can continue on Main.  Another is that snow removal is complicated in this congested area, and adding another set of obstructions adds to cost and trouble for plowing.  A third reason is that essentially expanding the sidewalk at every corner adds a lot of new real estate for the city to take care of, in terms of plantings, shoveling and maintenance - and that funding would have to come from somewhere.  Bump-outs could have advantages for Main Street - but since it’s an ongoing cost (both financial and operational) that we would have to absorb, it’s something that we should weigh from our own perspective, not as a way to help the cars go faster. 

….Except at the corner of Washington & Main

The DOT has proposed bump-outs at all the Main Street corners except the intersection of Washington and Main - there are no bump-outs planned on the Esca/Luce’s side of the street.  Instead, some Main Street parking is removed and the pedestrian area is pulled back to make more of a rounded corner for turning cars/trucks.  Ironically, this is the one intersection that could really benefit from bump-outs if your goal is to shorten the walk-light cycle - it has by far the highest volume of pedestrians, and making that cross easy and pleasant is critical to the economic health of Main Street.  But the DOT has rightly seen that it’s not a practical place for a bump-out because of the high volume of turning cars and particularly, large trucks.  All I can say is that this corner is a delicate balance that works right now - pedestrians get their time to cross diagonally and (most of the time) trucks can manage to navigate the turn.  The DOT proposal makes things better for the vehicles passing through town, but worse for pedestrians and nearby businesses. 

Lost Opportunity for Middletown, Part One:

Middletown has spent the past two decades (at least) working to make downtown a more vibrant and interesting place to work and live.   It’s long, slow, expensive work - but we’ve made tremendous progress.  A national trend is on the upswing where people want to move back to the urban core, and Middletown is generally poised to be a top choice in Connecticut - we’ve got access to jobs, shopping, culture, and a variety of residential types.  This type of area is also where businesses want to locate, hopefully providing even more jobs for both current and new residents. But the DOT plan gives priority to through-traffic, making cars more important than pedestrians, bicycles and people who want to park and shop. The kind of positive change we’ve made in Middletown comes from making lots of small, good decisions and resisting negative ones - and this DOT plan hurts that progress.

Lost Opportunity for Middletown, Part Two:

There’s one argument against removing the lights on Route 9 which has nothing to do with this particular plan.  Middletown is unlikely to ever have a first-class riverfront park in that area if Route 9 becomes a typical 65-80 mph highway - that’s because parks just don’t locate on the shoulder of a whizzing highway.  Maybe that’s ok - maybe the convenience of commuters is more important - but we should accept that the two goals are at odds (unless the cars are in a tunnel, which is a very expensive answer to the wait-time at the lights).  Cities all over the world have realized that the old pattern of having a high-speed highway next the river is a terrible waste of a civic resource.  In those places, cities have actually added stoplights to make those former highways act more like streets.  One example is the West Side Highway in Manhattan, which enlivens mid-town by creating easy access to a string of parks, running paths and tourism venues along the Hudson River, like the Intrepid and Chelsea Piers (while carrying a much higher volume of cars than Route 9).  

Isn’t there anything good about this plan?

The DOT makes the argument that this plan will cut back on accidents and injuries.  Hard to argue with that; we all wish there were fewer of those.  Highways are dangerous - but highways at higher speeds are more dangerous - so in the future, this area may have fewer incidents but with a much higher risk for injury and multiple vehicles. 

As for traffic, sadly it's a reality in Connecticut.  The plan to eliminate the lights will add to the congestion of the Cromwell merge, and do nothing to solve the frequent bumper-to-bumper traffic on Route 91 - so I think it's fair to question whether the actual gains for commuters outweigh the risks for our city.

The one rational argument I’ve heard for removing the lights is to eliminate the pollution from idling cars - and yes, in the short term, making the cars go faster is good for the environment.  

But in the long run, making it more convenient to commute longer distances to work is not good for the environment.  Instead, let’s build on the positive work that has been done to make Downtown Middletown a place where people of all income levels will want to live - to enjoy our walkable neighborhoods, our easy-to-get-to jobs, our restaurants and culture, our terrific local school.  Maybe, someday, even our revitalized riverfront.  Let’s support all the towns in Connecticut in their effort to offer both employment and great living experiences, because putting our resources into just making the cars go faster is a road to nowhere.
Please speak up about the effect of this plan on our town at the DOT meeting at Middletown High, Thursday, March 22nd at 7 pm.  If you can't attend the meeting, send written testimony to


Catherine Johnson said...

Well done, Jen. I appreciate you sharing your very thoughtful opinion, especially describing the impact this proposal will have on on our economy downtown. I agree with all you said.

I would point out that extending the sidewalks isn't really needed to reduce the crossing time.
I have watched differently-abled pedestrians cross at all times of day.
The crossing time is 10 seconds too long, even for the slowest walker.
Just reduce the timer now 10 seconds and leave us be.

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more with this assessment, Jen. I am really concerned that they are going to do irreparable damage to the city. And personally, I don't mind either of the lights on Route 9. It forces people to slow down. Yes, I am also a commuter on that stretch of highway.

Krista Lastrina said...

Very well said and so very true. I am a fellow downtown business owner and will definitely be participating in (hopefully) the ending of this proposal.

Alex Rose said...

Couldn't agree with this more.

I live in the South End and commute to Avon every day, so I will directly benefit from any improvement to traffic flow but it isn't worth the cost.

Key Questions:
1) Why is that any time someone proposes improvements to Middletown, it involves knocking down part of the North End? Remember Wesleyan's book store and drive thru Chipotle? I can't qWhite work out why these folk think the North End doesn't matter. We are one of the few cities in this state that made it through the 20th century without having big chunks of downtown bulldozed to make way for highways. Lets not start now.

2) So if I want to head West towards Meriden, do I now have to run through Main Street and jog down to Washington? How is that supposed to be better? How many people are going to divert down Grand to avoid the traffic and what will that do the rest of the neighborhood?

3) Speaking of, the ramp is going to involve bulldozing at least two businesses (Fox-Becker has been there for more than a century) and drops a highway intersection directly into the front door of newly renovated houses. How's that good for the neighborhood. Would you want to live there? How long before some drunk driver rockets through someone's front door? And that block of the neighborhood has some of the most successful businesses in the North End (O'Rourkes, NORA, Krust, etc.) How's the business going to be when half their customers have to run the gauntlet of evening traffic? I live just South of the hospital, and while I walk my dog down Main in the early morning, I find it too dangerous to cross the highway off ramp on South Main in the afternoon.

Anonymous said...

Do you really believe people commute long distance because they want to?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jen, for that really thorough assessment. If folks are wondering whether bumpouts work well go visit Downtown Meriden. I worked there in Economic Development when "downtown revitalization" was happening. I used the quotes because the level of disruption to businesses during the project put many of them out of business. What was left were beautiful sidewalks and lighting and few viable businesses. In Meriden they installed bumpouts in the late 90's and these traffic obstructions were instantly despised by most. The total number of on-street parking spaces when down, they were a nightmare to keep plowed, and in the winter this meant even fewer usable parking spaces. Also, because the curbs were constructed with cement two things happened: the plow blades took a beating and the broken curbs were much more expensive to replace (since conceete repair wasn't an option). This is just one aspect of the plan that I see as a mistake. Thanks again for your overview.

Ellen Ornato, former Asst Economic Dev Director, Meriden Economic Development Corp.