Federal money: Rounding out Salem Four Corners

I heard recently from a longtime Salem resident chagrined to see work under way on the town's new roundabout.

I have to admit the nostalgia-inclined curmudgeon in me shares with him some horror of the whole thing.

Salem Four Corners has long been one of the geographic mainstays of the region, not unlike the Submarine Base or Ocean Beach Park or Lantern Hill.

Not only has Salem Four Corners been the commercial and geographic center of the rural town, but its shape has literally become part of the name. And now will it be Salem Roundabout? Really?

Would New York pave over Central Park?

In fact, the project has already led to the demolition of two old town landmarks, a garage on the northwest corner and the town's original General Store building on the southwest corner.

I found references to them both in old stories in The Day going back to the 1920s, long before the major suburbanization of the town began.

I found one story from 1953 about how 100 houses were built in Salem that year. The population had doubled in the prior 35 years.

Salem Four Corners, the intersection of Routes 82 and 85, has in more recent years become less a town center and more a major intersection on the main route connecting southern New London County with Hartford.

Hence the logic of a roundabout, to replace a traditional town center. It is interesting that a roundabout is car-centric, while a four-way intersection accommodates people, too.

The intersection is just a short distance from the end of the truncated Route 11, which absorbs a lot of northbound Route 85 traffic and dumps the southbound traffic in the other direction.

In learning more about the reasons for this $3.5 million state traffic makeover, I spoke to a state Department of Transportation engineer who noted that the request for the change first came from the town.

It turns out, the engineer explained, the Salem intersection ranks fairly high on lists of unsafe intersections around the state, both for accidents at the traffic light and some at the driveway of a nearby gas station.

There were 24 collisions at the intersection, with seven injuries and one fatality, in the last five years. The intersection ranked 322 on the state's unsafe list.

The other location, the gas station driveway, ranked 121 on the state list, with 38 accidents and 18 injuries over the last five years.

The theory of the roundabout is that it slows and calms the traffic down. Of course it eliminates the head-on collisions caused by crossing opposing traffic, the kind that traditionally occurs at Salem Four Corners.

I did a tour of some of the businesses near the intersection and got kind of a mixed response to the roundabout from managers and employees, everything from disinterest to enthusiasm for the project.

There is some pervasive anxiety that the construction will hurt business this summer.

But the greatest underlying fear I heard from businesses was not related to the roundabout or the related construction.

The idea that Route 11 might some day be finished is what most worries Salem businesses near Routes 85 and 2. Curiously, the completion of Route 11 would largely eliminate the need for a roundabout.

I am all for improving traffic safety. And since it's mostly federal money doing this work, I guess we in Connecticut are supposed to be pleased the money is not going to some other part of the country.

Still, the curmudgeon in me hates to see the paving over of a town's history.

I wish they could have first tackled the 321 other places higher on the list of unsafe locations.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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