Studies may be part of the problem for Route 11, the road to nowhere

The unfinished portion of Route 11 northbound, looking toward East Lyme, in 2002.
The unfinished portion of Route 11 northbound, looking toward East Lyme, in 2002. Day file photo

The on-again, off-again project to finish Route 11 - Connecticut's "highway to nowhere" - has been called a victim of budget cuts, gung-ho environmentalism, local leaders' indecisiveness and as having too high a price tag.

Construction of the 8.5 mile segment from Salem to Waterford never picked up from its 1972 stall. Yet the passing decades saw a proliferation of planning and environmental studies on how to build those final miles.

This spring, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy resurrected the completion of Route 11 from its recent state of inanimation. He did it by announcing two new studies.

If highway projects were graded on study time alone, Route 11 could hardly be denied a gold star. But as contractors get under way with yet another round of project studies, some have suggested that all of that studying could be part of the reason why Route 11 Part II is still not built.

“What they do is just say 'study, study, study,' and pretty soon you either run out of time or money," said Edgar Hurle, a retired Department of Transportation planning director who worked on the Route 11 extension project from about 1977 until his retirement two years ago. "It's the most studied corridor in the state of Connecticut, if not the East Coast."

The state has done three "environmental impact studies" on the project since the 1970s, along with several supplemental reports at the request of state or federal environmental agencies. Yet each of the major studies' conclusions seems to vary little from its predecessors'.

Money has long been a high hurdle to getting the highway done.

Yet, so has the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 1 Boston office, Hurle said, which, in conjunction with other environmental agencies, kept requiring new studies for the corridor as a stalling tactic because it never wanted the road built. He called this strategy "paralysis by analysis."

Rob Simmons, the former Republican 2nd District representative, also blames the Boston EPA. "Repeated studies of the same situation over and over again come up with the same results at the costs of millions of dollars," he said.

David Deegan, spokesman for Region 1 EPA, said the office is not prejudiced against Route 11. "We consider any project on its merits," he said.

It's a long-running joke among area residents that the highway could have been built with all the money spent through the decades studying it.

A DOT official close to the project said it would take substantial research to accurately tally the total cost of every study and supplemental report done on Route 11 since the 1970s. But the sum could easily stretch into the tens of millions of dollars, accounting for inflation and staff time.

For Simmons, a Stonington resident, the final straw was a meeting in Hartford five years ago on Route 11's environmental impact.

EPA representatives sought additional time to study the population of New England cottontails near the proposed roadbed, as droppings from the threatened rabbits are most visible on winter snow. "That was the meeting I walked out of," he said.

The two new and ongoing studies will examine highway design and options for the project's financing. The state is paying $5 million for the studies, most of it with federal funds from a 2005 grant.

As part of the financing study, a state contractor is distributing thousands of questionnaires to area motorists to determine the viability of placing tolls on the future section of the highway, should the project get that far.

The DOT says that both studies will take two years to finish. Bearing in mind how past Route 11 predictions played out, state officials won't speculate on any future groundbreaking date after that.

Heavy traffic on 85

The highway that became Route 11 was proposed in the 1950s as a relocation of Hartford Road Route 85, a former wagon trail. The goal was a quicker trip between Hartford and New London.

The proposed four-lane, 16-mile expressway was to connect Route 2 in Colchester to an area near the present-day Interstate 95 and 395 interchange in Waterford. Opening day was scheduled for 1969.

But there was only enough money to build a 7.5-mile portion of the highway through the woods from Colchester to Salem. The second phase was supposed to come a few years after the first part finally opened in 1972.

That was 39 years ago.

Today it is possible to walk the first mile or so of the unbuilt Route 11 by following a dirt trail that starts in Salem where the highway ends, crossing a pair of unused green overpasses.

But southbound motorists en route to New London are forced off at Exit 4 onto Route 82. At Salem Four Corners they turn onto Route 85, a two-lane undivided road lined with commercial and private driveways.

Residents and local officials have long complained about the hazards of heavy traffic on this overburdened section of Route 85.

"It takes you 10 minutes to get out of your driveway in the summertime, and then they flip you off because you're stopping traffic," said Joe Biro, 53, who lives along Route 85 in Montville. "I've had people knocking on my door at 2 o'clock in the morning because they had head-on collisions."

State loses interest

Just as the money ran out for Route 11's second half, the process for building highways became significantly more complex and costly under new 1970s federal and state regulations.

Detailed plans were required to lay out a project's environmental impact and ways of reducing it. The first draft study on the Route 11 extension was completed in 1979, two years after the project made the DOT's "priority list." The thick report featured hand-drawn maps and typewritten reports under a Creamsicle orange cover.

The study put the cost of finishing the full highway at between $50 million and $65 million, depending on how far the road went. Haggling among local officials in the late 1970s and early 1980s on that subject contributed to further delays.

News reports described New London leaders as fuming over plans that would extend Route 11 to the Crystal Mall or I-95 in Waterford, rather than ending the highway closer to the city.

"For them to even think about it is unthinkable," said New London's then-city manager, C. Francis Driscoll.

State Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, recalled last week that Gov. Ella Grasso's administration was put off by such controversy.

"She made a decision, 'Well, I guess you don't need it, don't want it, so forget it,'" said Stillman, a resident at the time but not yet a representative. "All of those issues were resolved, and then it became too late."

When momentum returned in the mid-1980s, environmental regulators sought a new environmental impact study for Route 11 because the first study had been on the shelf too long.

Environmental hurdles were blamed for helping push Route 11 off the priority list in the 1990s, despite some statements of support from Gov. John G. Rowland.

"Unfortunately southeastern Connecticut doesn't quite have the political power as other parts of the state," said David Bingham of Salem, a longtime project proponent.

An EPA veto

As the highway's backers re-emphasized its potential economic benefits to southeastern Connecticut and argued that the road could help the environment by containing suburban sprawl, a third impact study on the project got under way in the late 1990s.

Supplemental studies were done on the wetlands and wildlife within the roughly 10,000 acres of forest surrounding the highway's proposed path. The legislature formed the Route 11 Greenway Authority Commission to create a buffer of open space along the new highway to appease environmental regulators.

But as Route 11 pushed forward, the EPA pushed back.

A 2002 letter to the DOT from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned of a "strong possibility" that the EPA would deliver a fatal veto to the Route 11 project, citing environmental concerns. The letter appeared to suggest that Connecticut should just give up on the highway.

"The Corps asks that you consider the costly burden and cost effectiveness of pursuing additional extensive and time-consuming studies and investigation … without the guarantee of final approval and acceptability," it said.

Approaching $1 billion

The General Assembly thought in the late 1960s that $41 million would be enough to build all 16 miles of Route 11. The most recent estimate for finishing the final 8.5 miles is $843 million to $924 million in 2013 dollars. Of that amount, up to $400 million would be for a new interchange at interstates 95 and 395.

State Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, is hoping for at least an 80/20 cost split between the federal and state government. Jutila drafted legislation this spring to authorize temporary tolls on the new portion of Route 11 to help pay the state's share of the cost. His bill passed the House but didn't come to a vote in the Senate. He plans to try again next year.

"The EPA has caused a lot of frustration over the years, and it may be that there are forces within the EPA who simply don't want to see the project go forward and will do what they can to stall it," Jutila said.

DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said the new ongoing studies are absolutely crucial for obtaining future funding and environmental permits. The studies will supplement the final 2007 environmental study and aren't duplicating that work, he said.

"If we did not take this step, I can guarantee you Route 11 would not be built," Nursick said.

Simmons, who is 68, would like to see the pace pick up. The former congressman said he made a pledge some years ago to travel the new section of highway before his time on Earth expires.

"I told my wife, 'Don't pull the plug until you drag my cooling carcass down Route 11,'" he said.

j.reindl@theday.com

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