DOT hopes ramp closure will improve traffic flow on Gold Star

This illustration shows the two suggested alternate routes motorists can take after the Bridge Street on-ramp to Interstate 95 south is shut down Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017. (Carlos Virgen/The Day)
This illustration shows the two suggested alternate routes motorists can take after the Bridge Street on-ramp to Interstate 95 south is shut down Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017. (Carlos Virgen/The Day)

Groton — After eight wrecks on the southbound side of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge over the last two weeks, the state Department of Transportation has announced a ramp closure intended to improve traffic flow.

According to the DOT, the Bridge Street on-ramp to Interstate 95 south will be closed "for an extended duration" beginning Saturday.

Officials said drivers using Bridge Street will be directed to continue eastbound toward Long Hill Road (Route 12), where they can turn left to get to a ramp to I-95 south.

Drivers additionally can head south on North Street, turn left on Meridian Street and then turn left on Brandegee Avenue (Route 349), where they’ll find another ramp to I-95 south.

The ramp’s configuration changed about two weeks ago, when officials transferred southbound traffic from the right three lanes of the bridge to the left three lanes as part of an ongoing rehabilitation project.

As it stands, those who come from the Bridge Street on-ramp quickly must merge left into the right travel lane. Because the right travel lane is an exit-only lane for Exit 84 to Route 32, those who don’t wish to exit the highway must merge one additional lane to the left.

In a recent story, several readers of The Day commented on the dangerousness of the Bridge Street ramp’s new configuration.

“The need to enter highway traffic from a dead standstill is a serious accident waiting to happen,” one wrote.

“It’s a death trap!” another added.

State police records show eight crashes in the area since Dec. 10. In some cases, cars on the Bridge Street ramp, without space to merge, were rear-ended by other vehicles on the ramp. Other times, cars already in the right lane of the highway, slowing nearly to a stop to allow the Bridge Street ramp traffic to merge, were rear-ended. On at least two occasions, drivers coming from the Bridge Street ramp failed to yield the right of way to those already on I-95.

On Wednesday, a morning rush hour crash in the area caused backups that extended some drivers’ commutes by almost an hour. The DOT’s ramp closure announcement followed that crash.

Why close the ramp?

According to DOT project engineer Keith Schoppe, DOT had hoped drivers would adjust to the new Bridge Street ramp traffic pattern, especially after crews added signage asking motorists on I-95 to be mindful and move over. He said it's clear from recent wrecks and complaints about near misses that “it’s just not working.”

“We want to err on the side of safety and keep traffic flowing smoothly,” Schoppe said. “That’s how we came about this decision to close the ramp.”

Schoppe said it’s possible the change could increase congestion on some local roads, especially during the times when employees of Electric Boat or Pfizer are getting off work. But DOT believes it’s unlikely that congestion will be worse than when there's a wreck on the Gold Star — especially because the other two ramps to the bridge aren’t far away from either business.

Schoppe noted that Electric Boat and Pfizer largely cease operations between Christmas and New Year’s and said their employees will be notified of the ramp closure before their return.

In the meantime, DOT is working with local police to get signs up, which is partly why it didn’t immediately close the ramp.

In a news release, town and city police said they expect the decision to result in tie-ups on local roads and will be on hand Saturday to help implement the new detours.

Joseph Sastre, director of Groton emergency management, called the Bridge Street ramp a “difficult merge” and said he expects its closure will improve conditions at the beginning of the bridge.

"As to the impact on the local streets, we’re very concerned," he continued. "I expect we’ll find out fairly soon."

Schoppe said the Bridge Street on-ramp likely will remain closed until Memorial Day, when DOT expects to open a fourth lane on the bridge.

He noted other improvements DOT has made in the past two weeks, such as increased signs alerting drivers to the exit-only nature of the far right lane.

“We’re always looking at ways to improve the flow of traffic,” Schoppe said. “But we always ask people to drive safely, too — to leave the proper amount of space and pay attention to the signs.”

Other entities also have been discussing the bridge work’s impact on the region, including the Southeast Area Transit District, whose board of directors met Wednesday.

SEAT General Manager Michael Carroll said three of the provider’s routes — Route 2, Route 3 and the Foxwoods route — use the Gold Star. Wednesday’s crash affected all three.

“Whenever there’s some kind of stoppage, we’re impacted,” Carroll said.

SEAT already modified some routes for safety reasons to avoid the Bridge Street on-ramp, he said.

Retired Groton Town Manager Mark Oefinger, calling for the use of better alternatives, said it's not a "merge" at Bridge Street, but an "ejection."

Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments Executive Director James Butler said state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, had been pressing DOT to close the Bridge Street on-ramp because of the unsafe situation.

According to DOT, Mohawk Northeast Inc. of Plantsville is handling the $26 million bridge rehabilitation project, which is scheduled to be completed in November 2018.

Day Staff Writers Kimberly Drelich and Erica Moser contributed to this report.

l.boyle@theday.com

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