Exploring solutions to the I-95 problem

In a special series that kicked off Tuesday on theday.com and begins Wednesday in the print edition, Day staff writers, editors, photographers and graphic designers document the public safety threat posed by an overcrowded Interstate 95 in Connecticut, explore possible solutions, and examine the human suffering that results from the highway’s deadly toll.

It is worse than we thought.

Designed in the 1950s to safely handle a traffic volume of 50,000 vehicles per day, which at the time appeared to provide an ample provision for traffic growth, I-95 today sees an average of 150,000 vehicles per day in some locations.

Half the highway through Connecticut has only two lanes, with much of that narrow roadway in eastern Connecticut. This two-lane crowding is made worse by an unusually large number of exits and entrances, averaging 1.3 miles between exits, but with on-off traffic far more frequent than that in many locations.

The result is too many cars having to negotiate roads that fluctuate between two and three lanes, and occasionally four, while merging on and off frequent exits. Cars and trucks traveling through or across the state interplay with local folk using the highway to run nearby errands, adding to the volume and the chaos.

This all contributes to cause an average of 17 accidents per day on I-95 in Connecticut, a number that continues to increase.

In addition to accidents, the crowded highway sees frequent traffic jams that hurt commerce, waste energy and aggravate drivers.

There is no easy fix, but there are ways to improve the situation.

It is paramount to add a third-lane to the two-lane sections, easing congestion and ending the need for vehicles to repeatedly merge back into two lanes. A third lane would also provide greater access for emergency vehicles and increase the opportunities for police to keep traffic moving around accidents.

From our perspective, tolls will be necessary to provide the funding to improve and maintain I-95, but they could also serve as a traffic management tool.

Connecticut’s advantage in having been without tolls for 30 years is that it can take advantage of the latest technology without having to refit existing toll facilities. EZ-Pass readers and license plate cameras mounted on overhead gantries can assess tolls without traffic having to slow. Toll fees could fluctuate, higher during the heavy congestion of rush hour, lower during off-peak times. This would encourage those using the highway for errands to time their driving to avoid the higher fees. For the same reason, some commuters may switch their work shifts earlier or later.

The result would be spreading traffic over more hours, easing rush-hour traffic.

State Department of Transportation highway engineers should also consider reducing the number of exits or significantly redesigning some to allow for safer merging.

Some argue that bad driving, not the busy interstate, is the primary cause of accidents and the resulting mega-traffic jams. It is true that if drivers would learn not to follow too close and reduce speeds, accidents would decrease. However, even if everyone followed every traffic rule, I-95 would experience accidents and traffic tie-ups because of the design flaws and heavy volume.

There is also the argument, noted in a recent Hartford Courant editorial, that new road construction and added capacity is a bad idea because “traffic increases to fill the highway space available to it.”

The better choice, the Courant editorial argued, is to encourage more ride-sharing and improve mass transit. They also embraced the idea of variable-priced tolling.

In the case of I-95, all of the above is necessary, both improving the highway with the added third lane and redesigned exits, and improving mass transit, while taking other steps to get more people out of their cars and off the highway. We would add another suggestion — encourage more people to work from home, taking advantage of high-speed Internet technology.

And we again call for a state constitutional amendment to assure funds collected to meet the state’s many transportation needs — whether through the new half-percent sales tax set aside, the gas tax, or future toll collections — cannot be raided to meet other obligations.

Only with such an assurance will the public entertain the massive investment that will be necessary to modernize our transportation systems.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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