Norwich to hear update Monday on plans for Route 82 roundabouts

Norwich — The state’s proposed reconstruction of Route 82 through Norwich is being designed by traffic engineers with vehicle flow and safety in mind, but city business leaders want to have a voice in how the massive construction project would affect businesses along the city’s busiest commercial strip.

The proposed project calls for six roundabouts in the stretch from the busy New London Turnpike intersection to the Asylum Street intersection, with a median divider to prevent left turns along that stretch.

The Norwich Community Development Corp. board of directors on Thursday voiced concern that Department of Transportation officials have been unconcerned about the potential harm the project could have to local businesses, both by taking pieces of their properties and by lengthy road construction disrupting customer traffic.

State DOT project manager Scott Bushee will discuss the plan for roundabouts at an informational meeting with the City Council at 6 p.m. Monday in Council Chambers at City Hall.

Mayor Peter Nystrom told the NCDC board Thursday morning that project officials have been visiting businesses and taking measurements along the route, causing “a buzz” that the project is imminent. It isn't, but Nystrom asked for the DOT presentation because of the heightened concerns.

Later Thursday, Nystrom issued a news release inviting local businesses to attend Monday’s presentation and repeating the City Council’s past vote in 2017 rescinding its endorsement for the roundabouts.

“The City Council has stated their opposition to the roundabouts,” Nystrom said in the release. “My concern represents the need to protect the business community during and after design and construction. We would like to see as many people attend the meeting so their voices can be heard."

Bushee said in a telephone interview Thursday that the project is approximately at the 20% design stage and still "has a long way to go." Construction on Phase 1 from the Mechanic-Asylum street intersection to Pine Street is scheduled to start in 2024, and Phase 2 from Pine Street to just west of New London Turnpike is scheduled to start in 2026.

There will be mini-phases, Bushee said, with the roadway torn up in segments rather than all at once. Access will be maintained at all times to businesses, he said.

NCDC board member Michael Rauh, president of Chelsea Groton Bank, said DOT officials have visited the bank’s property at 444 West Main St., and has proposed taking a piece of the property that would reduce parking by two or three spots.

Rauh asked NCDC and the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce to get involved and represent the business community in discussions with DOT about the project. He called it “very troubling” to hear that the state is not considering the impact on business.

Nystrom said the city has asked that work be done in the evenings and during off-peak hours but was told that wouldn’t be possible because it would disrupt residential traffic in the area.

NCDC members said they agreed the busy and accident-prone strip — nicknamed "Crash Alley" — needs improvements. They said the problems date back to the state’s initial project to widen the road to two lanes in each direction with elevated sidewalks and steep slopes into business driveways on the south side, forcing drivers to slow to a crawl when entering businesses or scrape the bottom of their vehicles on the concrete.

Bushee said traffic safety is the reason for the project. The strip has about 117 crashes per year, causing about 26 injuries. Emergency responses and medical care have been calculated at $4.2 million per year, Bushee said. About 60% of the crashes occur at intersections, and 40% at driveways. Installing a raised median to eliminate left turns is estimated to eliminate 78% of turning crashes and 90% of the injuries, Bushee said.

But Alderwoman and NCDC board member Stacy Gould, also a member of the East Great Plain Volunteer Fire Department at the Route 82-New London Turnpike junction, said the project gives little consideration to pedestrians. By removing the numerous red lights, there would be no walk signals to cross the street, especially as shoppers get off the westbound commuter bus and need to cross the street to get to the ShopRite/TJ Maxx plaza.

Bushee said pedestrian crossings are being considered, including possibly "hybrid beacons," flashing lights activated by pedestrians at certain spots, or raised pedestrian crossings for added safety. The finished roadway from Asylum to Pine streets will be one lane in each direction rather than two, easing pedestrian crossings, he said, and at the roundabouts, pedestrians can cross one lane at a time, waiting in the center between crossings.

NCDC board member Robert Staley said the city should go beyond voicing concerns about the roundabouts and plans for the reconstructed portion of Route 82. He said the city should urge DOT to continue the work all the way to the end of Route 82 downtown at Washington Square.

Staley said the current multilane, highway-style, one-way approach to downtown effectively isolates the Marina at American Wharf and is dangerous to pedestrians wanting to reach the city’s waterfront.

Currently, Route 82 splits into one-way segments in each direction, one entering downtown, with three lanes in front of the marina entrance, and one with two lanes leaving downtown over the Sweeney Bridge.

“I think it’s critical to try to link this to downtown and the marina,” Staley said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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