DOT Commissioner: I-95 widening, improvements should be on 'front burner'
The commissioner of the state Department of Transportation has told local officials that widening Interstate 95 and improving the interchange with Interstate 395 is the long-term solution to accidents on the highway between Old Lyme and Waterford.
"I think that is imminent in terms of us looking to the Bond Commission shortly to get that going, which is good news," said James P. Redeker. "I think it's been on the back burner, if any burner, for too long, and it's time to bring it to the front burner."
Redeker was responding to a concern raised by local officials about the "growing problem" on I-95 in Old Lyme, East Lyme and Waterford, following his presentation to the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments on Tuesday morning in Norwich.
East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson said the problem on the road goes beyond distracted driving and ongoing construction. He pointed to the tightening of the highway and hills in the area.
He asked Redeker if signs, lights and painting on the highway could alert people to slow down for the five-mile stretch that is a high-accident area.
"The highway has been shut down four times in the last two weeks, and we haven't started summer yet," Nickerson said of recent accidents.
An analysis of data by The Day found that between 1995 and 2014, the stretch from Exit 71 to the split with I-395 had the highest number of fatalities and injuries in the state east of the Connecticut River: 785, or about a quarter of the crashes that injured or killed.
Redeker said the rate of traffic incidents is not much different than it's been in the past prior to recent construction.
He said the DOT has added extra signage during the construction project, which is intended to improve safety in the area with features like safety barriers.
He said the state has looked at adding signs but said there are limits to what signs can do, and the DOT does not want to create more distractions.
"In the longer term and in the very near future, I think we'll be launching the initiation of the program to fix the interchange with 95/395 and begin to look at the widening of that section as a priority," Redeker said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's 30-year "Let's Go CT" transportation plan calls for fixing the interchange and widening the stretch of I-95 between the Baldwin Bridge and the Gold Star Bridge.
Two-thirds of the projects within the "$100 billion, 30-year vision" would bring infrastructure to "a state of good repair," while the other third is "based solely on the economic impact and return on investment," Redeker said.
The I-95/I-395 interchange in East Lyme and Waterford is one of the "major bottlenecks" in the state, according to a DOT document for Let's Go CT.
"The left-hand exit from I-95 westbound to I-395 northbound creates safety and congestion problems," the document states. "The close proximity to interchange 75 (I-95/Route 1) also creates operational problems."
The expanse of I-95 between the Baldwin Bridge and the Gold Star Bridge is "the most in need of capacity and safety improvements" in eastern Connecticut, according to an online dashboard for Let's Go CT.
The ramp-up plan calls for about $65 million to design improvements to I-95 between Old Lyme and New London and begin the right-of-way process. This phase is slated for 2018 to 2020 and onward, according to a state document.
The five-year plan also includes $750,000 for a study of a Shore Line East station in Niantic in 2016-17 and $32 million for construction to renovate the Gold Star Bridge in 2017-18.
Redeker said the state legislature has supported the five-year ramp-up plan to "Let's Go CT," which calls for $2.8 billion in bonding.
Later on Tuesday, while discussing with the Southeast Area Transit board of directors the likelihood of flat funding for the transit district, Redeker addressed some of the ongoing challenges facing transportation funding.
He said the hoped-for "lockbox" to secure transportation funding did not come to fruition.
He said the current state budget resolution cut $50 million from the transportation fund.
Meanwhile, the state budget and transportation fund are facing some negative trends of lower-than-expected gas prices and sales tax revenue.
The legislature and governor had anticipated the transportation fund would be solvent through 2020 or 2021, but the latest projections show a deficit in 2019, Redeker said.
State Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick said in an email interview that the DOT anticipates still being able to fund the Shore Line East station study, upgrades to the Gold Star Bridge and the design and right-of-way process for the stretch of I-95.
The redesign of I-95 would include the design for the I-395 interchange, if the DOT determines that is a priority for the corridor.
"Our expectation is that the recent budget resolution will not dramatically affect our ability to move forward with the ramp up," he wrote.
"The 30 Year vision has always necessitated discussion about future revenue sources. That issue remains unresolved at this time," he added.
At the council meeting, Salem First Selectman Kevin Lyden identified Route 85 safety improvements, which are in the five-year ramp-up plan, as one of the "highest priorities" for the regional council.
The improvement of I-95 between Old Lyme and New London, a stretch of road which he called "very problematic," is another priority, he said.
Lyden said the DOT held meetings and put up some additional signs for Route 85, and suggested a similar approach for I-95 in the interim.
He said he was glad the I-95 improvements would proceed to the design and right-of-way process, but that's still some time away, "so we're not going to have significant improvements in that area for several years."
"I would ask your team to really look at a way to make that area safer," Lyden added. "It's a very high-accident area, and maybe it compares with how accidents were in the past, but there's still an unacceptable number."
Redeker said he understood and would come back with some thoughts.
Carlos Virgen contributed to this report.