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Route 11 project given a death notice

After millions of dollars and decades of studies, design work, lobbying by local officials, debate over whether it’s needed and the impacts it would have, the proposal to extend Route 11 beyond its abrupt end in Salem is dead.

The official death notice came earlier this month in the Federal Register, where the Federal Highway Administration published an announcement that it was canceling plans to undertake an environmental impact study on the project.

The study would be required before federal funds could be spent to build the approximately eight miles of new highway connecting the existing Route 11 to the Interstate 95-395 intersection near the East Lyme-Waterford town line.

The project, estimated to cost $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion, would have been paid for with a combination of state and federal funds. About $12.7 million has been spent by the state Department of Transportation over the last two decades on studies, plans and preliminary design work on the Route 11 extension, DOT spokesman Judd Everhart said. 

Construction on the existing 8.5-mile highway from Colchester to Salem stopped in 1979.

Doug Hecox, spokesman for the FHA, said Monday that the agency decided to publish the notice, effectively signaling the project is no longer under consideration, after months of inaction by the Connecticut Department of Transportation. The FHA, he said, “made multiple requests (to Connecticut) to provide key information about this project, among them, a financial plan, engineering and operational analysis and other elements.”

“Several months ago, after these issues remained unresolved, the (highway administration) shut down this project’s number in the federal aid financial system,” he said. “In the Federal Register on Oct. 4, the (highway administration) rescinded the Notice of Intent for this project.”

Montville Mayor Ronald K. McDaniel said state DOT officials a few months ago informed him and leaders of the three other towns on the proposed route that the Route 11 extension effectively was dead, but that improvements would be made to I-95 and Route 85 instead.

"The reality is that they don't have the money to do the project," McDaniel said.

"If we can at least get some improvements to those roads (95 and 85) to ease congestion at peak times, that's a much more achievable goal," he said. "We've got other things we can tackle."

Hecox said one of “many factors” that weighed into the cancellation of the project was the identification of Native American archaeological sites in the proposed route of the highway, which would have traversed through Salem, Montville, East Lyme and Waterford. He directed further questions about those sites to the state DOT.

Kevin McBride, director of research at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, said that several Native American and colonial sites have been found along the route over the years, but he was not aware of any recent discoveries. He said he did not have direct knowledge of particular sites in that area, however.

“It’s a very sensitive area archaeologically,” he said. “But I don’t know of any new finds.”

State DOT officials did a "field walk" of the proposed route with representatives of the two Native American tribes and the Federal Highway Administration, according to Everhart, the Connecticut DOT spokesman.

"Various stones and stone formations (were) identified by the tribes as being possibly significant," Everhart said in an email message. "It was concluded that further study would be needed to determine an actual significance, but nothing further was ever done. This was not a significant factor in the decision to drop the Route 11 project."

He did say later by email that "If we had moved forward with the project, a full study would've been undertaken to determine the significance of these formations."

He said the agency doesn't release the locations of potential archaeological finds to prevent them from being disturbed.

Everhart said the main reason for canceling the project was that the estimated $1 billion cost of extending Route 11 and rebuilding the I-95/395 interchange was prohibitive given the region’s other transportation needs. Because of that, a financial plan was not provided to federal transportation officials, he said.

“The money was never in place,” he said. “If we couldn’t commit to the funding, we couldn’t move the project forward and there was no further reason to provide the additional information.”

Everhart said the state DOT is instead focusing on making improvements to I-95 in southeastern Connecticut to improve safety and ease congestion. A $125,000 study of the portion of I-95 that traverses the region was approved by the State Bond Commission in July. A focus of the study will be the section of I-95 from the Baldwin Bridge in Old Lyme to the Gold Star Memorial Bridge in New London, and safety issues with the left-hand exits at the I-395 interchange.

“The study will not include an assessment of extending Route 11 ... a project that no longer appears viable, at least in the foreseeable future, because of the inability to get approvals from federal environmental agencies,” Everhart said.

Several years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency raised objections to the Route 11 project, citing the need to preserve sensitive wetlands and important wildlife habitats in the area. New England cottontail rabbits, which were considered for Endangered Species status, have been found in the area.

At the same time the I-95 study is underway, the state DOT is planning a project to widen parts of Route 85, a heavily traveled two-lane road that goes through Waterford, Montville, Salem and Colchester. The project would include improvements to several intersections, Everhart said.

Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward said fixing 95 and 85 instead of building the Route 11 extension is a realistic compromise. Both roads have too many accidents and must be made safer, he said.

“The EPA would never approve that road,” he said of Route 11. “We’ve talked to the DOT, and they’ve said these are the things they can fix, but they can’t fix Route 11.”

East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson agreed. All three towns are viewing the Federal Register notice as a final step that allows the region to put its energies toward doable transportation projects, rather than staying stalled on Route 11.

“It’s too bad we didn’t get this done when we could have gotten it done,” Nickerson said, referring to the initial construction project in the 1970s. “But in this day and age with budgets the way we are, the investment of money would be more significant to alleviate the choke points on 95 and 85. It will save lives. It’s good to make a decision and move on.”

Salem First Selectman Kevin Lyden could not be reached to comment Tuesday. 

James Butler, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, said the Route 11 project has been listed as one of the region’s transportation priorities. During the council’s meeting Wednesday, he said, he will inform the group about the developments. He declined further comment.

j.benson@theday.com

To read the Federal Register notice, visit http://bit.ly/2eqPjSU.

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