Friends, foes take another trip along unfinished Route 11

Waterford - Resolution of the decades-old question of whether to build the rest of Route 11 may be no closer, but proponents, opponents and the undecided got a fresh hearing Monday of the financial, environmental, economic development and transportation policy issues at stake.

At a forum at the Waterford Public Library sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut, about 40 local residents listened to presentations by Molly McKay of Mystic, transportation chairwoman for the Connecticut Sierra Club and project opponent, and state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, a supporter.

The highway extends 8.5 miles from Colchester to its abrupt ending in Salem, and debate over whether to complete the 7.5 miles to its originally intended terminus at interstates 95 and 395 at the Waterford-East Lyme town line has been a perennial topic since the last mile of asphalt was poured in 1972.

This spring, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy revived the issue when he announced two new studies would be undertaken on highway design and financing options, including the use of tolls. Costs of completing the highway, including an interchange at 95 and 395, are just under $1 billion. Proponents are hoping federal funds would cover about 80 percent of the costs, while opponents warn that costs will likely escalate much higher than the estimate.

The two studies, the latest of many over the years, would be paid for with about $5 million in federal funds from a 2005 grant.

In her presentation, McKay argued that Route 11 should be viewed in the larger context of a flawed national transportation policy that favors highways and car transportation at the expense of rail and other forms of mass transit. The time is long overdue, she said, to stop pouring money into highways and make investments in mass transportation that will curb sprawl, make cities more attractive places to live and provide an alternative to gridlock.

Instead of spending money on Route 11, the state should undertake a "community sensitivity upgrade" of Route 85, she said. Obtaining the federal permits needed for Route 11, she said, would be difficult because of the Environmental Protection Agency's long-standing concerns about environmental impacts.

"This is a huge, long-range project that affects what we do with the rest of our transportation budget," she said. "This road would take years to build, and there would be gridlock (on 95) with years of construction."

Jutila opened his talk by calling Route 11 "one of the most important issues to southeastern Connecticut."

"To me, the debate ended 40 years ago," he said. "It was never a decision to build half a highway. It was never the decision to have the highway dead-end and drop all this traffic in the rural town of Salem."

Building Route 11 will improve safety, by taking traffic off the two-lane Route 85 and improving the interstate 95-395 interchange, Jutila said. It would also provide a better evacuation route for southeastern Connecticut residents in the case of hurricanes and other emergencies, he said. Land around the highway could be protected from development by a greenway, he said, and a finished highway would be good for the region's economy.

Members of the audience were split in their views on the project, with some questioning the cost and impact on homes in the corridor, while others said the most recent design would impact only 17 acres of wetlands, preserving a sensitive wildlife corridor and provide better access to the region for tourism and commerce.

j.benson@theday.com

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