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    Friday, August 19, 2022

    Building a better road to a college community

    The unlikely collaboration of a transportation commissioner and a liberal-arts college president had its origins, unfortunately, in tragedy. In 2015, a Connecticut College student was killed while crossing Mohegan Avenue (Route 32), the state highway that bisects the college’s 750-acre campus in New London. As we discussed ways to prevent future fatalities, we began reflecting on the damage caused by this highway and the collaborative work we must do to fix it.

    Mohegan Avenue was once a tree-lined boulevard overlooking the Thames River on the eastern side of the Connecticut College campus. Today it is an imposing, four-lane divided throughway. Expanded during the 1970s with the massive re-engineering of Interstate 95, the highway now accommodates over 29,000 vehicles per day, many of them traveling at speeds inhospitable to pedestrians and incompatible with the needs of a residential college.

    But the highway planners of the 1960s had different concerns. Their vision of convenience and efficiency gave precedence to high-speed vehicles at the expense of pedestrians. That vision fundamentally altered the relationship between the college and New London. With the radical expansion of the interstate, vast tracts of land became concrete barriers further separating the campus from its host city.

    How can we repair the damage? Is it possible to reconcile the experience of 1,900 full-time college students with the needs of daily commuters? More importantly, is it possible to rebuild our roadways in a way to reconnect colleges and their host communities to provide greater opportunities for both?

    The state of Connecticut has begun developing answers. In 2014, it was the first in New England to adopt a “Complete Streets” policy. The concept involves addressing people of all ages and abilities, those who not only drive but also walk, bike, or move about by other means. It means designing – or redesigning – our roads on a human scale.

    A recent roadway safety audit completed by the Connecticut Department of Transportation in partnership with the city of New London argues for reducing the space given over to cars on Mohegan Avenue in order to create room for bicyclists, pedestrians, wheelchair users, and many others. Redesigning the road with painted shoulders and a grassy median would certainly make it more inclusive. And that one shift would bring an added benefit: it would serve to slow traffic, as motorists naturally reduce their speed in a complex landscape.

    Beyond making the road safer for pedestrians, re-engineering the Mohegan Avenue corridor would also help to restore a sense of place to Connecticut College. It would make many campus gardens and buildings more accessible to the public. Most critically, it would reconnect the campus to New London.

    New London already benefits from the private colleges, academies, museums and schools in its midst. These institutions create jobs, provide services, and bring visitors to the region each year. Connecticut College alone produced $660 million of direct impact on the state economy in 2013. And yet, because of decisions made by an earlier generation of highway planners, these institutions remain sadly disconnected. The visibly incomplete nature of our current streets and highway infrastructure continues to perpetuate the inequities that left our cities broken.

    By redesigning our roads we can change that story. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has recently urged policymakers to rethink the role of highways in connecting all citizens to opportunity. Connecticut has already taken the first steps.

    The point is not simply to make our cities more attractive and our roads safer. It is about rebuilding the connections between interdependent communities in order to make our cities whole again. A reconnected New London could become a model city for our time: more inclusive, more equitable, and more just. We can think of no more meaningful public work than this.

    Katherine Bergeron is president of Connecticut College in New London. James P. Redeker is the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

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