East Lyme traffic concerns allayed after 'all-hands-on-deck' meeting

East Lyme — After traffic-related concerns over ongoing Costco-related roadwork at the Interstate 95 Exit 74 interchange were raised last week, town and DOT officials met for an “all-hands-on-deck meeting” Monday to resolve the issues.

They said the talk was “productive and successful” and that the town, Costco developers and DOT now are all “on the same page.”

“We just had to get everyone at the table and it helped a lot. It cleared everything up and everyone’s expectations were put on the same page,” First Selectman Mark Nickerson said Friday. “The bottom line is that we are working together to reach the same goal, to do this safely, to ease congestion as much as possible and to do this (roadwork) in a practical way that makes sense for the contractor and the people who have to drive through there.”

Nickerson said those present at the meeting, which included himself, DOT officials, Public Works Director Joe Bragaw, Gateway Developers overseeing the Costco construction, hired contractors, town police and others, reached an understanding about how to best move forward. The ongoing roadwork over recent weeks has caused delays and congestion in the area and sparked further worries over school busing schedules and another bridge project happening nearby on Route 1.

Besides causing backups along both sides of Route 161, the ongoing construction has at times, according to DOT project engineer Brent Church, who is responsible for ensuring the roadwork is being carried out properly, also caused backups along the Exit 74 southbound off-ramp, pushing traffic onto the highway, prompting safety concerns.

After Church recently was forced to shut down construction for a day, Church said he called Monday's meeting to clear up lines of communication between town officials, police, DOT and Costco contractors to allow for better functioning roadways during the project.

“The communication between the developer and the town needs to be much clearer, and there needs to be constant communication going across the board on a daily basis,” Church had said. “These projects are very difficult and this is a very difficult area to do work in. It’s the summer crowd, there’s a lot of people moving through that area. So we have to do what’s right for the town and the people that live there.”

The project, which is being carried out by the Gateway Commons developers overseeing Costco construction, is not a "DOT or a town project," Nickerson said. However, it required various DOT and town approvals before breaking ground. Plans call for changing the southbound on-ramp and off-ramp into a T configuration on a frontage road running by Pools Etc., allowing drivers coming off the interstate to either turn left toward Costco or right toward Route 161 after a stop light. The DOT, according to Church in an interview last week, ensures that the project is being properly carried out according to DOT standards, while the town should aid with traffic safety along Route 161.   

Of the solutions outlined at the meeting, Nickerson summarized that police will now have authority to control congestion, traffic patterns and signage, while contractors have agreed to scale back the intensity of the roadwork during morning and afternoon rush hours, agreeing to work overnight and keeping all lanes open before 9 a.m. and after 3 p.m. The open lanes also will allow school buses to pass through without delay once school starts Wednesday.

Nickerson also said that only one lane out of the four on Route 161 can be closed at any given time during the day and that he and the DOT, contractors, police and inspectors will meet weekly at the job site “to go over any issues and prepare properly for the next week.” He also said state troopers will now be present anytime Exit 74 interchange ramp work is being conducted.

Nickerson said Friday that issues in the area have been significantly alleviated since Monday's meeting. “It’s been good there over the last days,” he said. “I’ve driven through at various times throughout the days to check on it and it’s been much better.”

“The very nature of a construction project is that there will be delays and congestion. That is to be expected,” he continued. “But we also need some common sense for how to go about this.”

Church agreed by phone Friday saying that congestion and delays have been less severe, stating that he’s seen “noticeable differences” since the meeting and that he is pleased with its outcome.

He said that Costco developers still have not submitted "signalization plans" that he had said were delaying the project. He said Friday he could not comment on how that would affect the project’s timeline.

Bragaw was not immediately available for comment by Friday’s deadline to comment on the project's timeline.

Nickerson said that he believes Costco is still set to open its doors this November but its projected grand opening was still a “loose target.” He said road construction likely would take place throughout the fall until the store’s opening.

“There’s extensive work that needs to be done. There’s the traffic lights, the utility poles, the ramps ... There’s a lot of work and detail going into this,” Nickerson said. “It’s very important that the contractor finishes this job on time. No one wants to hold them up, but they also need to work within DOT standards, and now an understanding between everyone has been established.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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