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    Wednesday, February 21, 2024

    East Lyme braces for more than 4 years of snarled traffic

    A rendering of what the I-95 interchange with Route 161 in East Lyme will look like after almost five years of construction was shared this week with local officials. Courtesy of the town.

    East Lyme ― Before traffic in this growing beach town gets better, it’s going to get worse.

    Officials this week announced the time is here to begin a $148 million construction project at the Exit 74 interchange of Interstate 95 that’s been touted as one of the largest in the state. The goal is to reduce congestion and improve safety on the highway and Route 161, the underlying state road leading to the shore.

    The declaration set the clock on 4 1/2 years of lane closures, detours and snarled traffic.

    The project was first slated to begin in 2021, but was delayed by issues including property acquisition by eminent domain. Since then, the Starlight Inn and Mobil gas station have been demolished and East Lyme Driving Range has been shuttered to make room for the highway improvements.

    A wide, looped on-ramp will cover part of the former golf range as one of numerous changes, including the widening of the highway and Route 161, replacement of the interstate bridge and relocation of the existing commuter parking lots to an area across the street from King Arthur Drive.

    On the town website, First Selectman Kevin Seery said project officials have likened the project to the reconstruction of New Haven’s Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge, commonly known as the Q-Bridge. That $554 million project took five years to deliver, according to the Associated Press.

    Connecticut Department of Transportation spokeswoman Shannon King Burnham described the expanse of I-95 here as one of the most heavily traveled in the state. The project is currently among the largest in eastern Connecticut and the state.

    The first year will consist mostly of utility relocation work, Seery said. That information came from project managers with the Glastonbury-based engineering firm GM2 and representatives of the state Department of Transportation at a pre-construction meeting last week, where they told officials that crews will begin moving poles, gas lines and water and sewer lines on Route 161 in the coming weeks.

    The contractor is Plainville-based Manafort Brothers Inc.

    Seery warned the work will require lane closures. Those will begin once surveyors are done placing their stakes and ribbons in a project area running roughly from Stop & Shop to True Value Home Center.

    The first selectman said daytime closures on Route 161 are limited by contract to one lane in each direction between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

    Police Chief Mike Finkelstein said intermittent traffic delays would disrupt “normal operations and normal lives” for the next four years.

    “It’s going to be fun,” he said, sarcastically.

    Still, he said the effect on traffic during the first year of utility work won’t be as intense as it will be during construction over the next several years.

    He also was relieved to hear that work on the highway, when it begins, is not expected to involve full closures that will divert all interstate traffic onto local roads.

    Burnham, the DOT spokesman, told The Day that some work will involve closing the highway for 10 minutes at a time, but there will be no long-term or permanent lane closures on I-95.

    Route 161 beneath the highway is slated for complete closure overnight when the bridge is demolished and when the steel girders go up, she said. The rest of the work will include reduced lanes but no anticipated road closures on the state road.

    The majority of construction work will occur overnight, according to Burnham. She said any specific lane closures or detours would be announced “well in advance” on the project website expected to go live in mid April, on social media and in press releases if necessary.

    There will also be a camera feed on the website so the public can view real-time traffic.

    Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton sent a letter to the school community telling them to expect busing delays.

    “We will be regularly planning and strategizing with the town and DOT in hopes of minimizing these delays and road issues,” he wrote.

    The state transportation department has said there are higher than normal crash rates at interchange 74 and on Flanders Road in the vicinity of Burger King.

    Included in the designs are auxiliary lanes between exits 74 and 75 in each direction.

    In the case of the northbound side, Finkelstein said officials were told the lanes will give drivers more time to get up to speed, while cars traveling just one exit would be able to get off without ever having to merge into another lane of traffic.

    He said significant grading work is also going to be done to level what is now a narrow and hilly expanse.

    Burnham said widening and leveling the highway is necessary to accommodate the increasing number of cars and how fast they move. Drivers will be able to see farther and spend more time in acceleration and deceleration lanes before merging or exiting.

    “The posted speed limit is 50 MPH, but the designed improvements will allow for 70 MPH,” she said.

    Updates will be provided on the town’s website, local access TV stations, and the town’s Facebook pages.

    Finkelstein said he’s hopeful the project managers, contractor, state transportation department and local officials can work together to manage the situation as efficiently as possible.

    “We have heavy traffic anyway, so certainly it’s going to be a lot for people to deal with during this time frame,” he said.

    e.regan@theday.com

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