CT DOT is back to the drawing board, looking for a third plan to remove the traffic signals on Route 9. The dilemma is how to accomplish that without adding to downtown congestion. The two plans presented so far involved the relocation of exits, which meant pushing more vehicles onto already-clogged streets at peak afternoon traffic.
Here are the key questions, as I see it. What are the key features of any proposal that will not worsen downtown congestion? And given the spatial constraints, road safety design requirements, and budget limitations involved, can a project that incorporates those key features actually be designed and constructed?”
Removing the traffic signals on Route 9 remains a worthy goal in terms of reducing accidents, pollution, wasted fuel, and time spent in traffic. Of the 7,530 vehicles travelling on Route 9 in both directions at peak afternoon rush hour, 2,780 (37%) exit in downtown Middletown. The dreaded late-afternoon back-ups already affect the North End and Newfield Street area because southbound drivers exit in Cromwell and use Liberty, High, Grand, and other residential streets to access the bridge.
Here’s the heart of the challenge. Removing the Route 9 signals requires the relocation or redesign of exits—namely, the northbound and southbound exits at Washington Street (exit 15) and the northbound exit at Hartford Avenue (exit 16). How can that be accomplished in a way that does not involve a 23-foot wall at the bottom of Washington Street (as in the first plan), does not push all those exiting vehicles onto Rapallo Avenue (as in the second plan), and does not worsen downtown congestion by forcing drivers via relocated exits onto streets where those drivers do not wish to end up (as in both previous plans)?
Removal of the three above-mentioned exits will affect approximately 760 vehicles per hour at peak afternoon rush hour. (All vehicle and turn count figures are projections for the year 2020, provided by CT DOT.) Of those 760 vehicles, 460 are headed for a destination lying west along Washington Street—specifically, 87% of the cars exiting at Washington Street. About 280 of the 760 are headed for the entrance ramp of the Arrigoni Bridge or another destination that takes them through the north end of Main Street—that is, 83% of the cars that exit northbound at Hartford Avenue plus some that exit northbound at Washington Street.
In other words, about 740 of these 760 vehicles are currently exiting precisely where they want to go. Forcing these cars and trucks to exit anywhere else will put more traffic on Main Street and side streets. Therefore, the best solution to the Route 9 congestion problem will retain these exits exactly where they are. But can we accomplish that and remove the traffic signals for through traffic?
Here are two possible solutions. Both of these involve signalizing the entering and exiting traffic at Hartford Avenue. In other words, entering northbound traffic would alternate with exiting northbound traffic, both moving under the proposed elevated southbound lanes whose traffic would not have to stop. Northbound Route 9 traffic would also continue without stopping.
Where the two options differ lies in how the northbound traffic exiting at Washington Street is dealt with. In the preferred but more expensive option, Route 9 southbound would be lowered sufficiently to allow northbound exiting traffic at Washington St. to cross the southbound lanes via an at-grade or slightly elevated bridge. This may require some pumping equipment to be installed to deal with the possibility of flooding. It would also involve removing the pedestrian tunnel under Route 9 from Melilli Plaza—a loss, but perhaps an acceptable one if a pedestrian overpass to Harbor Park is constructed. (Note that this pedestrian tunnel almost never floods, so maybe flooding isn’t such a serious obstacle to lowering the southbound lanes.)
The less expensive option would require northbound traffic exiting at Washington Street to go a bit farther north to the Hartford Avenue exit, cross under the elevated southbound lanes, and return to Washington Street where it could exit to the right. Not real pretty, admittedly, and spatially complicated, but perhaps it can be made to work.
The main point: both of these options would leave downtown traffic patterns virtually unchanged. I have spoken with DOT engineers on several occasions since August 2016 about these ideas. Their responses have included mention of issues that only traffic engineers can deal with, but I have heard no absolute deal-breaking factors. I do not pretend be a traffic engineer myself, but I believe that, given the many serious constraints of the situation, any acceptable solution will entail both compromises and less-than-ideal features. With some speed reducing measures such as narrower travel lanes, and perhaps widening the opening where Route 9 passes under the railroad bridge, it seems that some such approach is feasible. More to the point, it seems that some version of one of these must be made to work if we are to leave local traffic patterns unchanged.
But speaking of minimizing negative impacts, here is another dilemma to reckon with. The project (separate from the traffic signal project) to remove the stop sign at the northbound entrance of Route 17 onto Route 9 — one of the highest accident rate locations in the state— involves building a northbound acceleration lane along the right/east side of the highway near Harbor Park. The engineers have said that this requires the removal of the Harbor Park northbound entrance ramp that serves 560 vehicles per hour at peak afternoon traffic. That’s a lot of cars. Where will they enter Route 9 after the Harbor Park entrance ramp removal? The remaining options are South Main Street, Eastern Drive, and Hartford Avenue. Is there a way to allow the Harbor Park entrance ramp to remain?
Finally, we should embrace those aspects of the most recent CT DOT proposal that would benefit Middletown quite apart from the Route 9 traffic signal issue. The at-grade railroad crossing from Portland Street into the Miller/Bridge Street neighborhood should be restored as soon as possible. The pedestrian bump-outs on Main Street can be installed to improve visibility and safety for pedestrians as well as the efficiency of vehicle traffic flow. The City could modify some streets and build trails—some of which are already planned—to encourage bicycling in and out of the downtown area. Cut-through traffic would be reduced by closing the westbound ramp from the bridge onto Spring Street and the ramp from Liberty Street to Newfield Street, thereby adding to pedestrian safety around Macdonough School. That, of course, would likely put more cars onto Grand and Liberty, but a more efficiently-functioning Main Street and use of one-way streets would reduce the temptation for drivers to cut through on side streets. Middletown police have said they would like to see Main Street traffic signals synchronized, but the lights north of Washington are controlled by the state, while those south of Washington are controlled by the city. Can’t we work something out?
I commend Middletown residents for their informed engagement on these challenges, and I commend CT DOT for their listening, responsiveness, and the time they spend speaking with the public. Many of us—I certainly among them—have gotten quite an education in the process. Let’s all stay involved. And by all means, if there are better ideas out there, let’s hear them.
John C. Hall is the Executive Director of the Jonah Center for Earth and Art, but the views expressed here are his own. This opinion article first appeared in the Middletown Press.