More space, fewer drivers is governor's prescription for highway

Anyone with a driver’s license who lives in or passes through Connecticut has tales of the frustration and even fear of traveling on I-95.

The highway’s reputation for congestion and riskiness is well-deserved, as documented by the Connecticut Crash Data Repository at the University of Connecticut, a database of accident investigations and reports from the state Department of Transportation from 1995 to the present. The data released so far extends through 2013 and is the basis for much of this special report by The Day.

The top five accident causes identified by the database reflect driving behavior more than infrastructure, but the 30-year, $100 billion transportation overhaul proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy would attempt to address the agonies of I-95 by increasing the driving space and decreasing the number of drivers.

The governor’s plan for I-95 would widen two-lane sections and cut down on incentives to use the interstate by increasing railway and bus alternatives. And perhaps, now that it is also the political property of the General Assembly, which allotted a half-percent of the state sales tax to the plan and enacted a five-year bonding request for $2.8 billion, the plan may eventually come to include tolls and/or elimination of some exits and entrances.

A consistently three-lane highway with fewer drivers to speed, change lanes improperly or follow too closely could be a highway that addressed those three frequent accident causes listed in the Crash Data Repository. The other two among the top five causes— a driver losing control and an object in the roadway — could, with more room in which drivers can react, perhaps be influenced, too.

Drivers and the highway

Built in the 1950s to carry 50,000 vehicles a day, the highway now handles 150,000 in the New Haven area and about 100,000 between the Connecticut and Thames rivers.

Data shows that, for example, the most accidents occur between 3 and 6 p.m., at times when the highway is apt to be carrying the most traffic. An Oct. 12, 2014, multiple-vehicle, fatal crash on a two-lane stretch in Waterford occurred at 7 p.m. on the Sunday of Columbus Day weekend when southbound traffic was backing up because of a 4:23 p.m. crash in Old Lyme.

Total accidents by hour of day

Source: Connecticut Crash Data Repository

Total accidents by day of the week

Source: Connecticut Crash Data Repository

The approach offered by Malloy and his transportation commissioner, James Redeker, would be to even out the flow by widening the highway consistently to three lanes. The point is to reduce the number of bottlenecks, according to Redeker.

“When we say widen highways, we’re not saying add a lane everywhere to everything. Give me three lanes going everywhere, instead of going three to two to three to two to three to two up and down 95 … which creates an artificial barrier,” he said.

On I-95 in eastern Connecticut, bottlenecks occur past the Raymond E. Baldwin Bridge between Old Saybrook and Old Lyme and the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, which links New London to Groton. Both bridges have more lanes than the roadway at either end, putting drivers in the position of having to shift several lanes to be properly positioned as they near the ends of the bridges.

Number of lanes by mile marker

Source: CT Department of Transportation

A deadly accident occurred Aug. 15 on I-95 north in Old Lyme, in the stretch just after vehicles come off the Baldwin Bridge and the roadway narrows to two lanes.

“Widening without touching public transportation is not going to work,” said Jackson, director of the Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center at UConn, which assembled the data repository.

He expressed doubt that it would work for long.

“It is very expensive; construction will cause major delays and traffic nightmares; and in 10 years or less the congestion levels will be right back where they were,” Jackson wrote in an email.

Redeker said that despite a general perception that widening I-95 would have “a massive impact on property,” most of the needed land is in the right-of-way of the interstate.

The impact of widening on public safety is debated. An initial depression of congestion does not necessarily mean a safer highway, said UConn Engineering Professor John Ivan. Fewer cars on the roadway mean capacity for higher speeds, and a high-speed crash is more likely to be fatal than a crash in slower, more congested traffic, he said.

There is another reason some favor widening the highway.

“They do need to widen I-95,” said Waterford Police Lt. Stephen Bellos, referring to what happens when an accident blocks a lane. “If I have two lanes and I get a wreck across them, I’m done.”

Bellos said widening would make it easier for police to respond and would lessen the need to send traffic to smaller roads that can’t handle it. He said that in the scenario of an accident in a narrow area such as Exit 75 on the East Lyme-Waterford line, police have to shut down the entire section of highway and direct drivers to secondary roads. And those secondary roads aren’t designed to accommodate the volume of traffic that spills off a highway, said Waterford Police Chief Brett Mahoney.

Two crashes on I-95 in Old Lyme on Aug. 15 — the northbound one just past the bridge and one southbound an hour earlier — closed the highway in both directions, sending drivers onto Route 1 and other local roads for hours of Saturday summertime traffic.

“It’s New England,” said Mahoney. “It’s small pockets of towns right next to each other. Route 1 is a small, little road here. We don’t have the road design with the frontage roads like, I don’t know, Dallas, or any of those areas, where if the highway’s blocked you can route them off on a two-lane road going the same way immediately.”

On and off

Two-lane stretches of I-95 in areas with many on- and off-ramps — like most of eastern Connecticut — have two major effects: They lure local drivers onto the highway for short distances, and they force repeated lane-changing to admit merging traffic.

According to statistics from the highway departments in Interstate 95 states, I-95 in Connecticut has the third-highest density of exits and entrances on the entire Maine-to-Florida highway, after New York and Rhode Island.

The governor’s plan does not explicitly address exit density, but in a June interview with The Day, Malloy said that widening may help alleviate some of the crisscrossing traffic caused by clusters of entrance and exit ramps.

He said some parts of the highway could have lanes specifically dedicated to entrance and exit ramp traffic.

“Traffic can merge if you give it enough time and space,” the governor said.

Ivan, the UConn professor whose research includes statistical modeling of transportation systems, suggested that removing exits or entrances to make I-95 less of a local shortcut would increase safety. DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick agreed.

“The more access points, the greater potential for conflicting traffic movements, result being a likely higher accident rate. This is a highly urbanized state, and we definitely have more access points per given length of highway than other states,” Nursick wrote in an email.

Accident Rates (2008-2013)

Accident rates were only calculated for sections of the interstate for which average daily traffic data was collected by the Connecticut Department of Transportation. Data for 2008-2013 was used because that is the most recent period for which ADT counts were made at consistent locations each year.
Source: CT DOT, UConn Connecticut Crash Data Repository

Ivan said such a change would frustrate those who would have to cope with the nuisance of living near a highway but being unable to use it for local trips.

“There are some places you do use I-95 for local traffic because you need to do so,” he said.

“I’m really rather agnostic about how many entrances and exits we have,” Malloy said in June, noting that exits are not uniformly dense across the interstate. Engineers may decide to remove or add ramps as part of designs for widening, he said.

The existing northbound Exit 75 on-ramp from Boston Post Road in East Lyme dumps traffic onto the two-lane portion of the interstate only a quarter of a mile before the interstate splits to permit merging onto I-395.

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said a barrier could be installed along Exit 75 so that northbound traffic enters I-95 only after the split with I-395. Local traffic could get to I-395 by entering at Exit 74.

Making improvements will take some unlearning of assumptions about how transportation should work, said historian Peter Norton, an associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society at the University of Virginia. Norton is the author of “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.”

He provided as an example an engineering standard known as “Level of Service.” Congested roads get lower ratings, and the typical response is to add a lane or otherwise expand capacity.

“Maybe we should first ask, ‘What kind of city do we really want?’ Then we could design the transportation system to serve that city, instead of destroying the city for the transportation system,” he wrote in an email.

Norton said one of the best ways to reduce congestion is to put people in a position of having to pay for the roads, such as with tolls — “and then congestion has a way of solving itself.”

Tolls

Just the mention of highway tolls reminds longtime Connecticut residents of a notorious accident in Stratford on I-95.

On Jan. 19, 1983, a tractor-trailer hauling a load of sweet potatoes crashed into the rear of a car that was slowing to pay the toll, causing a multi-vehicle accident that killed seven people.

The accident spurred the removal of all six I-95 toll plazas in the next two years and all state tolls by 1989.

The state is considering reintroducing tolls to help fund the proposed $100 million transportation overhaul. Proposals include tolls at state borders; open road tolling, which allows for collection of tolls by license plate recognition or other electronic methods, rather than toll booths; and congestion pricing, in which drivers would pay a toll to access a less-congested lane.

The governor told The Day June 30 that, while current funding levels for improvements are a good start for the 30-year plan, new revenue sources will be needed. During the 2015 legislative session that ended that same day, the General Assembly approved $2.8 billion in bonding over the next five years and earmarked a half-percent of sales tax revenue for transportation infrastructure.

If Malloy’s plan is to be implemented, tolls of some sort are inevitable, said state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, who has taken a lead role in the legislative deliberations. And, he added, “I think any serious plan that involves tolls has to consider I-95.”

Modern tolls differ from the 1980s version. They don’t have to require drivers to stop. Thomas Maziarz, chief of the DOT’s bureau of policy and planning, said E-Z Pass scanners and cameras to capture license plate numbers for those without E-Z Pass would be installed in overhead gantries.

A study due for release this fall will analyze the pros and cons of electronic tolling options on I-95 from the New York state line to New Haven and in the I-84 viaduct area in Hartford, according to Maziarz. Those are the two areas where the DOT would be the most prepared to establish tolls.

He said tolling could both raise revenue for highway improvements and decrease congestion by encouraging drivers to consider other routes and modes of transportation to avoid tolls.

“The initial results suggest we could have very good results if we combine congestion pricing with an additional lane out there,” said Maziarz.

He said establishing tolls on I-95 could take seven years or even longer, since collecting tolls requires legislative approval and the DOT will not establish tolls until widening plans have the necessary environmental permits.

Maziarz said the DOT has been looking into the pros and cons of border tolling, emphasizing that the research was a response to legislators, interest groups and others having brought it up. He said border tolling would provide less revenue than other tolling options and the federal government was unlikely to approve border tolling, given potential impact on interstate commerce.

More coverage

Editorial: Exploring solutions to the I-95 problem

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