Consultant recommends changes to New London traffic pattern

New London — A long-awaited study of the city's parking and traffic needs recommends changing the circular traffic flow in downtown New London by making Eugene O’Neill Drive a two-way street and eliminating  a lane on Bank Street to make it more bicycle- pedestrian- and parking-friendly.

Bike lanes are also recommended for Governor Winthrop Boulevard, as are a shared trail along Water Street that would allow pedestrians and bicyclists access to Crystal Avenue, and various crosswalk, traffic signal and intersection improvements.

The $105,200 traffic and parking study is part of a larger undertaking that looks at the city's future infrastructure needs in the downtown such as water and sewer lines. It was funded by a state grant.

David Sullivan, manager of traffic engineering at consulting firm Milone and MacBroom, which prepared the study, said the goal was to "take your downtown and look at what's been happening over the years ... and assess and plan for current and future transportation needs."

The firm took the city's existing traffic load and projected the effect of full occupancy in the downtown area between Crystal Avenue and Tilley Street as well as proposed future development.

The biggest increase in downtown traffic will likely come when the crowds arrive for the projected opening of the Coast Guard Museum in 2020. The Coast Guard Association has been awaiting the study to find solutions for the estimated 500,000 visitors to the museum in its first year. Roughly 250,000 are anticipated in subsequent years, based on a study commissioned by the Coast Guard.

In addition, officials from the ferry terminal also expect a significant increase in passengers over the next few years, as do Amtrak and the Southeast Area Transit District.

To handle museum traffic, the city has proposed expanding the Water Street parking garage by 400 spaces by building over an existing surface lot on the eastern side. In addition, a proposed $20 million state-funded pedestrian bridge would connect the garage with the museum.

But optimizing traffic flow was trickier.

Sullivan said several scenarios were considered for better using surface roads in the downtown area, including converting Bank and Water streets to two-way traffic and reversing the direction of South Water Street.

However, because of the railroad crossing at both Water and South Water streets, the railroad signal must pre-empt any traffic signal changes that would take place making a conversion very difficult, he said.

Instead, the study proposes that Eugene O'Neill Drive from just north of the police station be converted into a two-way street, extending to the point where it turns into Green Street and intersects with Tilley Street. Northbound, a turn-off onto Water Street would be constructed behind the city police station allowing commuters to access both directions of Interstate 95 and Route 32 north.

This would give a second northbound option for commuters leaving the city from large employers such as Electric Boat and Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. Sullivan estimated "about a third" of that traffic would be diverted onto Eugene O'Neill Drive.

Having a second northbound artery in the city would then allow Bank Street to be reduced from two lanes to one, as the study recommended, with space for vehicles to open their car doors safely, and lane markings indicating where bicycles can share the lane with vehicles. All the parking along Bank Street would be maintained.

This would create less traffic through the area and "more purposeful traffic," Sullivan said. 

In order to improve connectivity with northern sections of New London, such as Crystal Avenue, a shared pathway along the eastern side of Water Street would allow pedestrians and bicyclists to travel safely up to an existing trail in the area.

A connection to the trail would be created by adding two dedicated bike paths along each side of Governor Winthrop Boulevard. The sidewalks on the western side of the street would also be improved.

Atlantic Street behind the Water Street garage would be made a two-way street, allowing people parking in the garage to drive downtown more easily.

Small changes, Sullivan added, could also substantially improve the city's parking situation.

"Wayfinding to parking areas is poor ... it's a traffic situation," he noted. Simply adding signs to the available parking areas could improve traffic in the summer.

The city could also add technology that would display the number of parking spots available inside the garage.

The study also recommended better utilizing the Governor Winthrop Boulevard parking garage, and looking into instituting a metered parking system in some areas in the future.

Other minor improvements include converting Masonic Street from a one-way to two-way street, improving handicapped accessibility, updating the city's largely outdated traffic lights and pedestrian signals and extending the curbs in a number of intersections.

The study began about a year ago, and businesses throughout the downtown were consulted during the study and their opinions solicited through online surveys and telephone interviews. The company also consulted about two dozen local and regional plans and studies of development that related to New London.

The overall gist of the study is that New London has the traffic and parking capacity, according to Mayor Michael Passero, but it needs to be managed optimally and the "1960s traffic pattern" should be revised.

He praised the work of the parking authority for making steps toward the study's recommendations and said he was particularly excited about the proposal to reduce the lanes on Bank Street.

"Two lanes don't work when someone is trying to parallel park," Passero said.

City officials said they would be pursuing a number of grant opportunities to potentially fund the project, including the Community Connectivity Grant, the Local Transportation Capital Improvement fund, and others. The study will be finalized June 13 and available at City Hall.

n.lynch@theday.com

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