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Road to ruin: Why spend another decade building Route 11?

Like a plague of locusts, the notion for completing Route 11 to Connecticut's shoreline appears every few years in The Day, and requires an appropriate response.

This time, the notion is an imposition of big tolls on Route 11 to pay for the road currently costing $1.4 billion for just 8-miles of four-lane asphalt.

Since America cannot build its way out of congestion, the tolls would only shift drivers to Route 85, which already serves the same corridor from Hartford, and has done so successfully for decades. And contrary to Route 11's shills, Route 85 is NOT more dangerous than other highways (source: Southeastern Connecticut Council of Government study); it has the same, or fewer, accidents than other similar roads.

In fact, the extension of a Route 11 financed by tolls would become Connecticut's equivalent of Boston's over-priced "Big Dig." Then, why is there still an interest in extending this road which most of the time, is empty? Follow the money!

The first 8-mile section of Route 11 was built in the 1960s cutting through woodlands and wetlands from Colchester to Salem when most Americans were still giddy about the new interstates. And certainly, the interstates helped grow the auto-dependent economy - and as we have learned, created suburban sprawl, urban deterioration and enormous energy waste. Just look at Hartford with its massive multi-lane highways rivaling Houston and enabling the 1960s' middle class to flee to the suburbs, thereby denuding the city of all but its poorest, and car-less, dependent people.

The tragedy of the Interstate Highway System is this: a good thing became the only thing. The oil lobby's political influence crowded out investments for other transportation modes. Via its well-funded 1930s' "Good Roads" movement, convincing 36 of the then 48 states to pass constitutional amendments prohibiting governors from spending state gas taxes on anything but highways, it effectively throttled any funding for rail (25 of 50 states retain this prohibition, contributing to America's poor rail system.)

Given the facts, why is there is any interest in extending Route 11? Because by law roads traditionally get 80 percent to 90 percent of their cost from the feds, making any sane governor think twice about refusing federal highway money. But what is new - at last! - is that times have changed. Now, the feds and states must justify big roads. They must produce an environmental impact statement that: 1) proves that the road is necessary; 2) can pass a realistic "cost-benefit" analysis; 3) minimizes energy consumption; and 4) causes minimal harm to the environment.

The McGuire Group's Route 11 energy analysis for the impact statement revealed that construction of the preferred alternative would require trillions of British Thermal Units (BTUs) of fossil fuels. What's more, according to Connecticut Department of Transportation, the connecting Route 11/Interstate 95 interchange in East Lyme would rise about 70 feet above the surrounding area while causing significant air and storm-water pollution. A similar highway interchange outside Washington, DC has cost more than $1 billion and the cost is rising. DOT is curiously silent on that fact.

Most importantly, there is a cost-effective, superior alternative to extending Route 11: regularly scheduled bus service between Salem/Colchester and Hartford, and, more permanently, upgrading the rail lines from New London to Hartford via Willimantic, for a fraction of the cost of "completing" Route 11.

Robert Fromer is an environmental consultant residing in Windsor. Molly McKay resides in Stonington and is chairperson of Sierra Club's Transportation Committee.


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