Gold Star sees 3 times more crashes in first year of construction

In this April 12, 2017, file photo, three right lanes of Interstate 95 southbound, left, are closed over the Gold Star Memorial Bridge because of road construction. (Tim Martin/The Day)
In this April 12, 2017, file photo, three right lanes of Interstate 95 southbound, left, are closed over the Gold Star Memorial Bridge because of road construction. (Tim Martin/The Day)

It has been just more than a year since crews set up on the southbound side of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, readying for a hefty structural overhaul.

As residents were reminded again Monday, when a rush-hour crash left traffic backed up well into Groton, drivers have negotiated the work zone with widely varying degrees of success.

On Wednesday, The Day set out to put the crashes into context. Using the UConn Connecticut Crash Data Repository, reporters analyzed wrecks that have taken place from Route 12 to the New London side of the bridge.

From April 16, 2016, to April 15, 2017 — that’s about when the lengthy bridge project began — 13 crashes happened on or leading up to the southbound side of the structure.

From April 16, 2017, to April 15 of this year, there were 45 wrecks on the same stretch.

Most of the crashes resulted in minor or no injuries, the data show. Several happened because drivers were speeding, tailgating, weaving or failing to yield right of way to other drivers. One was even blamed on a driver distracted by "other, inside the vehicle (eating, personal hygiene, etc.)."

Many of the wrecks also came in quick succession, typically corresponding with changes in the project.

September, for example, saw four wrecks in five days after crews reduced the bridge from four lanes to three.

And in December, when construction moved from the left side of the bridge to the right, at least five crashes took place, prompting officials to shutter the Bridge Street on-ramp

On Wednesday, state Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick emphasized that work zones aren’t plopped into place without any thought. It takes planning to determine how many lanes to close, which type of barriers to use, where signs should be placed and how soon drivers should be warned of what’s ahead.

He acknowledged that the Gold Star is particularly tough because there are multiple lanes with drivers merging from the left and right and some looking to cut all the way across.

“There’s a lot of vehicles using it,” Nursick said of the Gold Star. “Because of the change from what folks are used to and because we’re squeezing that much traffic into a more restricted footprint, I think we knew it was going to be challenging going into it.”

DOT has monitored the project each step of the way and, as it did with the Bridge Street on-ramp, when residents and town officials complained it was too short, has made changes when necessary. But Nursick maintained Wednesday that poor driver behavior is the biggest problem — not just on the Gold Star but in all construction zones.

“Traffic movements are supposed to be controlled, predictable and courteous,” Nursick said. “You’re not supposed to be making haphazard maneuvers and you should be signaling your intentions.”

“The error on our part was the expectation that people would follow the rules,” he said, referring specifically to the Bridge Street ramp. “But you see it every day: nobody merges properly or yields the right of way. It’s supposed to be smooth, but it’s not.”

In general, Nursick said the project is "moving along very well."

Overseen by Mohawk Northeast Inc. of Plantsville, the $26 million rehabilitation has included structural steel repairs, concrete deck patching, joint replacement, illumination and paving. It's expected to preserve the 1973 bridge for another 25 years and was slated to be finished by Nov. 30 this year.

The northbound side of the bridge, built in the 1940s, also is in line to get a facelift. DOT officials have said that project will be more extensive than the project on the southbound span.

l.boyle@theday.com

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