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    Local News
    Wednesday, April 17, 2024

    The two-decade struggle to fix Gold Star traffic jams

    An 1,100-ton truss span for the second Gold Star Memorial Bridge is floated into place on June 2, 1972, after it was built nearby at Whaling City Dredge and Dock in Groton. (Day file photo)
    After this crash on the Gold Star on Nov. 29, 1967, in which three people were seriously injured and traffic was tied up for hours, letter writers demanded action from state officials and urged a higher median divider on the bridge. (Connecticut State Library)
    Cars are lined up on Williams Street, near Mohegan Avenue, as they wait for the Gold Star Memorial Bridge to open after an accident on Oct. 24, 1956. The eastbound lanes were closed for three hours, delaying thousands of drivers. (Day file photo)
    The last of five new sections of the original Gold Star Memorial Bridge is hoisted into place by cranes mounted on barges on Aug. 1, 1974. (Day file photo)
    Construction workers pour concrete on the newly widened original Gold Star Memorial Bridge on June 20, 1974. (Day file photo)
    The second Gold Star Memorial Bridge carries three lanes of traffic in each direction while the original bridge is being rebuilt on March 25, 1974. (Day file photo)
    Second bridge, which opened 50 years ago, was only part of the story

    Editor’s note: This story was drawn mostly from the archives of The Day, with additional material from the Connecticut State Library and the Connecticut College website “Mapping Urban Renewal in New London: 1941-1975.”

    It all started with soda bottles.

    The driver of a pickup on the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, then a single span with two lanes in each direction, tried to pass the car ahead of him. When he changed lanes, cases of bottles he was carrying shifted, and the truck fishtailed. Then it climbed over the low concrete median and struck an oncoming car.

    Maybe it was the three serious injuries that resulted, or traffic at a standstill for hours, or just people’s patience at a breaking point. But something about this accident in November 1967 struck a nerve. After years of worsening conditions on the bridge, letters started arriving at the governor’s office, demanding action.

    “Being a frequent user of this Bridge I like many other citizens have come to fear to cross it,” one man wrote.

    But little could be done. The solution was a second span, and that was already planned but still a long way off.

    Fifty years ago in June, the Gold Star’s long-awaited twin was finally finished, changing the region’s transportation landscape. But even that didn’t end the story.

    The original span’s completion in 1943 ended huge tie-ups on its predecessor, a converted railroad bridge that opened whenever a boat came along. But with time and more traffic, the Gold Star became the problem it was built to solve.

    Fixing things was a bigger job the second time around. The solution had to account for busier roads, changes in traffic engineering and vast disruptions on the ground. A second span wasn’t enough: The old bridge would also have to be widened to keep travel between New London and Groton flowing for the long haul.

    The entire drama played out over 20 years of construction, demolition, upheaval and death.

    The two spans of the Gold Star Bridge, photographed over New London in 2022. The railroad bridge is on the right.

    Cars and trucks first drove across the across the Thames River between Groton and New London on repurposed railroad tracks.

    By 1965, the four-lane span is part of Interstate 95, the primary north-south artery along the eastern seaboard.

    Work on the second span nears completion. Meantime, the new bridge temporarily accomodates three lanes of traffic in each directon.

    Ultimately, 20 traffic lanes will carry people and commerce over the Thames to destinations from New York to Bangor and Miami to Boston.

    Scott Ritter/The Day | Photos: Bywater Historical Services LLC; The Day

    * * *

    The accident that took a 16-year-old’s life in July 1958 was an earlier breaking point. The fact that he’d had his driver’s license just two days and was going 100 mph didn’t seem to matter as much as the location.

    The crash occurred at the corner of Colman Street and the Bridge Approach, a four-lane road built for the Gold Star in the 1940s. There were businesses on both sides and intersections with other streets.

    It was the second fatality at that spot, and the third on the approach, in a few months.

    Three years before, when the state had announced plans to convert the approach to a limited-access highway, many in New London were dead set against the idea.

    “We need this as much as we need a hole in the head,” Spencer Moon complained about the expected loss of traffic to his Buick dealership and gas station.

    But as the Bridge Approach became increasingly dangerous, the city changed its tune. After the third fatality, officials pleaded for the stalled project to begin.

    The addition of service roads and overpasses at Briggs, Colman and Vauxhall streets wasn’t just about safety in the immediate area. The approach would eventually be part of a Maine-to-Florida highway.

    Most of Connecticut’s stretch of Interstate 95 had just opened as the Connecticut Turnpike, which ran from Greenwich to East Lyme before turning north. The rest of the route, from Waterford to the Rhode Island line, would be upgraded piecemeal over the next few years. The Bridge Approach was one of the pieces, as was the bridge itself.

    With approach construction underway in January 1960, the state announced a second bridge would be built next to the existing one. But years before that happened, the last section of highway opened in Groton, Stonington and North Stonington. As of December 1964, the narrow Gold Star was part of I-95.

    A traffic nightmare was ahead.

    * * *

    For Samuel Bellin, the state might as well have dropped a bomb.

    When initial plans for the new bridge were unveiled in late 1963, they included a four-lane access road from the Bridge Approach to Mohegan Avenue. It would run right through Hodges Square, wiping out the thriving business district.

    “There are no empty stores here, such as you see downtown …,” said Bellin, who ran a pharmacy. “How can they do this?”

    Bellin and his fellow merchants organized, and the city got behind them in opposing the loss of Hodges Square. Highway Commissioner Howard Ives warned the alternative might be worse but gave the city eight options to choose from.

    New London reluctantly backed “Alternate G,” which spared Hodges Square but still took 250 properties, including businesses on the new service roads.

    The interchange to enter the bridge caused endless design complications, but the bridge itself would be a straightforward truss span like the Gold Star, only wider. Engineers had briefly considered a double-deck bridge and even a tunnel, but those ideas went nowhere.

    Revisions to the interchange in 1967 that would take still more properties dismayed most city officials except the Redevelopment Agency, which was conducting widespread demolition of its own.

    “Usually when highways are built, they take some valuable land and open other properties which in turn become valuable. This plan takes everything but returns nothing,” Assessor Robert Flanagan complained.

    The city’s grand list was in for a $3 million hit. Among the properties to be sacrificed were the Meadows Restaurant, New London Motel, Fremont Funeral Home and London House apartments, which were almost new. Winthrop School next to the Old Town Mill was also targeted. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church left town, though its building survived.

    By the fall of 1969, as property owners collected damages, other aspects of the project were in place. With bids made and contracts signed, construction was set to begin.

    * * *

    Bumper to bumper and not moving, cars stretched west to the Waterford weigh station and north to Quaker Hill. The cause of the afternoon traffic jam, just before Christmas 1966, was a tractor-trailer that had jumped the bridge’s median. That morning another truck had run out of fuel. Then it snowed overnight, and the next day cars were again stacked up for miles.

    The only thing remarkable about this trio of tie-ups is that it wasn’t remarkable at all.

    Crashes and congestion on the bridge had gradually increased, but once I-95 opened, they spiked. Stories about closed lanes and late-arriving commuters were so common in The Day they were often relegated to inside pages.

    In one case, an ambulance carrying a patient was rerouted many miles to the Mohegan-Pequot Bridge. In another, a woman in labor got a police escort past an accident scene.

    Meanwhile, a separate drama was unfolding: People were jumping off the bridge. Since 1951, there had been about one suicide a year, with more attempts thwarted.

    Dr. Charles Dyer, New London’s health director, spent years begging the state for higher fences. Officials finally agreed in 1967. Two people leaped to their deaths while the fences were going up, but the march of troubled souls to the bridge slowed, then stopped.

    Amid the traffic woes, public hearings were held and frustrations vented, but answers were elusive.

    “Who the hell is responsible?” asked Groton City Mayor Clarence Sharp, who later had a highway named after him.

    Ideas included stoplights, TV monitors, motorcycle patrols and highway workers summoning wreckers with walkie-talkies. New London City Councilor Ruby Turner Morris proposed squeezing through traffic into one lane to keep the other free for entering vehicles.

    There was no solution except to proceed with construction.

    1940: Groton-New London Bridge opens.

    1951: A woman jumps to her death from the bridge, beginning a 20-year suicide era that claims 19 lives.

    1958: A series of fatal accidents on the Bridge Approach prompt the city to urge completion of the stalled service road project.

    1964: News that plans for the new bridge would destroy Hodges Square causes an uproar, and access road locations are changed in response. With the completion of Connecticut’s last stretch of Interstate 95, in Groton and Stonington, the bridge becomes part of the highway.

    1967: Engineers again revise access road plans in response to complaints, and the taking of 250 properties begins. As increasing traffic jams become intolerable, local officials beg the state to speed the construction schedule. Suicide fences are erected, which reduce fatal jumps.

    1973: The new bridge opens and temporarily accommodates three lanes of traffic in each direction as the original bridge closes.

    1975: The original bridge opens to six lanes of northbound traffic, and the new bridge is converted to six lanes of southbound traffic.

    Scott Ritter/The Day | Photos: Public Library of New London (top); The Day

    * * *

    By the spring of 1970, a line of piers was taking shape to the bridge’s north. The six in the river required boring, dredging, driving piles into bedrock, pumping out water and pouring concrete into frames.

    After the endless planning and negotiation of recent years, the substructure was erected quickly and finished well ahead of schedule.

    The first steel girders were laid on the piers in May 1971, and the following year, sections of the superstructure, built on bridge-high staging at Whaling City Dredge and Dock in Groton, were floated into place on barges.

    The usual misfortunes included a punctured water main, brief labor disputes, and the deaths of two workers, one crushed, the other electrocuted. When the Coast Guard barque Eagle sailed under the bridge in June 1972, safety nets caught two of its three masts and snapped off the tops.

    The next month, the last section of framing was in place, but the opening was still a year off as the access-road interchange was transformed.

    The existing, tidy cloverleaf morphed into a tangle of looping entrance ramps and overlapping highways. Route 32 was widened and relocated. The Colman and Briggs street overpasses, just a decade old, were demolished and rebuilt.

    When the ribbon was cut to open the new bridge on June 13, 1973, the first car to cross was the same ’41 Lincoln Continental that had inaugurated traffic on the original bridge three decades before.

    But two more years of construction were ahead. While the new bridge carried three lanes in each direction, with familiar traffic problems, the old one was dismantled. Giant cranes lowered sections of it and raised wider replacements in the spring and summer of 1974.

    When it was finally over, the result was two one-way bridges with five lanes apiece, which has worked smoothly ever since. But the end of the 20-year saga came with an unplanned nod to the past.

    On Dec. 16, 1975, minutes after a ceremony opening the reconstructed bridge, two cars were damaged in a minor collision.


    Bridge’s current long-term drama is about maintenance

    The 20-year odyssey of road improvements and bridge building from 1955 to 1975 ended the Gold Star Memorial Bridge’s chronic traffic nightmare.

    Since then, problems have been limited to things like weekend beach tie-ups and the occasional spectacular crash.

    On Feb. 13, 2022, a tractor-trailer jackknifed and tore through the bridge’s fence, snarling northbound traffic for five hours, just like in the old days. On April 21 of this year, a crash involving a heating oil truck killed the driver and set the southbound span on fire, closing Interstate 95 in both directions.

    The bridge’s latest multiyear saga isn’t about traffic. This time, it’s maintenance.

    In 2017 the state Department of Transportation announced both bridges were due for extensive rehabilitation to keep them in good shape for the next 25 years. The southbound span was tackled first: substructure and steel repairs, expansion-joint replacement and deck repaving. Work wrapped up in late 2018 and cost $43.8 million, according to the DOT.

    The structural integrity of the southbound bridge held firm through the massive fire in April, though officials said that was less about the rehab than other factors.

    Last year, work began on the northbound span, whose condition was rated as “poor” after a Federal Highway Administration inspection in 2019. That indicated a need to start repairs rather than an immediate emergency, and DOT said bridges rated poor can be used safely for “many, many years."

    In December the FHA announced a $158 million federal grant for the job, which is estimated to total $407 million. It involves strengthening the truss and girder spans and replacing the deck. Adding a pedestrian and bicycle path is also under consideration.

    The work is expected to be complete by 2029.

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