The configuration of turn lanes at the intersection of Eastern Point and Benham roads would remain the same under a lane reconfiguration proposed by CTDOT (CT Examiner/Crowley)

Shoreline Bike Plans Stymied at Eastern Point Road in Groton

GROTON — A state proposal to reconfigure lanes on a road near Electric Boat’s Groton campus could be a key piece of a proposed bike-friendly corridor along the shoreline from Rhode Island to the Connecticut River, but the Connecticut Department of Transportation says there isn’t room on the road for traditional bike lanes.

The proposal from CTDOT would reconfigure the lanes on Eastern Point Road between its intersections with Benham Road to Chester Street, eliminating one southbound driving lane so that there would be one lane in either direction, with wider shoulders.

That section of road serves the South Yard of the Electric Boat campus, where the company is ramping up for major submarine construction programs that are expected to create an additional 5,000 jobs at the Groton campus between 2019 and 2020. Electric Boat is opposed to the project because it worries reconfigured lanes could disrupt its construction.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation is proposing reconfiguring Eastern Point Road between Benham Road and Chester Street to have two lanes and wider shoulders.

Route 349, including that section of Eastern Point Road, is included in a plan for an “Eastern Shoreline Path” that would be a bike-friendly corridor from the Rhode Island state line in Pawcatuck to the Baldwin Bridge over the Connecticut River, which was proposed in a regional bike and pedestrian plan the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments composed last year.

The reconfigured road would have one 12-foot wide driving lane in each direction, with shoulders about six feet wide. The southbound lanes would split into the existing three-lane configuration at the intersection with Benham Street, cutting out the shoulder.

Brian Kent, a landscape architect and vice chair of the Connecticut Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, said the project should include marked bike lanes on each shoulder, with a buffer strip between the driving lanes and shoulder. 

“The challenge is to convince the DOT at an engineering level that this is bigger than the half-mile stretch of road,” Kent said.

The bike-friendly corridor is meant to link shoreline towns together with a route that comes as close to the shoreline as possible, to allow cyclists to experience the beauty and communities along it, including Bluff Point, Harkness Park, Mystic and Noank, Kent said.

The ultimate goal is to connect that route to New Haven, and then seek designation as part of the Bicycle Route 1A that would spoke off of a bike route that approximates U.S. Route 1. That designation would attract investment and encourage development of more bike-friendly areas for local cyclists around the corridor, Kent said.

Chris Granatini of Tighe & Bond, the project manager on the CTDOT proposal, said during a virtual information session held Monday that the road isn’t wide enough for bike lanes. Kent believes it is, and also said turn lanes at intersections could be eliminated, especially the right-only turn lanes at the intersections of Eastern Point Road with Chester Street and Benham Road.

“The right turn lanes are unnecessary,” Kent said. “If they eliminated those, the bike lane could go to the intersection.”

To get through the Chester Road intersection under the state proposal, a cyclist would have to exit the shoulder and enter the stream of traffic to pass through the intersection, Granatini said. He said the department could consider eliminating the turn lanes. 

Groton asks, “can it wait?”

The section of road where CTDOT proposes to alter the lanes contains two entrances to the South Yard of the Electric Boat shipyard – the main gate entrance for submarine construction and an access road supporting construction of a new submarine assembly building, according to a letter from Electric Boat Vice President Joseph Drake to City of Groton Mayor Keith Hendrick.

Drake wrote that the traffic has increased significantly at those entrances, and is expected to remain elevated through the late 2030s as Electric Boat works through the Columbia and Virginia-class submarine construction programs. 

In a letter to CTDOT, Hendrick wrote that the city could support the project in the future, but only after Electric Boat completes that construction, scheduled to continue through 2023.

“Once the major construction at Electric Boat’s south yard is finalized, this project should be reconsidered,” Hendrick wrote.

The project needs the approval of the City of Groton before CTDOT can move forward. Granatini said that if the city decides not to go forward with the project, the state will stripe the road in its original configuration, and the city can come back to CTDOT in the future if it wants to reconsider.

“Pavement markings are not permanent. Pavement is not permanent” Granatini said.

Pedestrian safety concerns

Road “diets” are often used to improve safety on four-lane roads where left turns are dangerous. A diet on a four-lane road could eliminate a driving lane in each direction and include a center lane for cars making left turns across traffic, Michael Morehouse, a project manager from Fitzgerald & Halliday said during the informational session. Road diets also reduce driver speeds, which reduces vehicle collisions and greatly reduces pedestrian crashes, he said.

CTDOT Spokesman Kevin Nursick said one of the earliest road diets in Connecticut was on Silver Lane in East Hartford over 20 years ago, before road diet was a term. More recently, a four-lane section of Burnside Avenue in East Hartford was converted into a two-lane road with five-foot marked bike lanes and seven-foot shoulders in 2016. 

Thirty-five pedestrians and cyclists were involved in collisions on that stretch of Burnside Avenue between 2009 and 2015, six fatal, according to Bike Walk Connecticut. Parker Sorenson, project engineer with Fitzgerald & Halladay, said there was one crash on the section of Eastern Point Road between 2016 and 2018 – a front-to-rear collision that only resulted in property damage. 

In April, a man who worked at Electric Boat in Groton was killed when a vehicle driving south on Eastern Point Road struck him as he crossed the road within a crosswalk from the South Gate, according to The New London Day.

Groton Town Councilor Aundré Bumgardner, who questioned CTDOT about the bike lanes during the listening session, said he did not think the road diet addressed concerns of pedestrian safety in the area, which includes several parking lots for Electric Boat employees – and specifically at the Chester-Eastern Point intersection.

“What we see at this intersection is that, unfortunately, speeding vehicles are enabled by poor street design, which resulted in a life taken too soon,” Bumgardner said. “Now we have a prime opportunity to introduce traffic calming measures to Route 349.”

The lack of pedestrian accommodations around the Electric Boat campus was identified in a regional plan for the New London area as submarine building expands. The plan recommended flashing beacons at pedestrian crossings, more crossings, accessible ramps, raised or textured pavement and increased lighting.

Bumgardner said more people who work at Electric Boat have to be encouraged to live in Groton, and one way to do that is to create walkable, diverse neighborhoods. Investments in transportation infrastructure should include more than road resurfacing, with more focus on sidewalks and bicycle infrastructure.

“At a time when people are using their cars less and bikes more, we should be recognizing those trends in changes in behavior of our constituents, and really listening to their demands for safer streets,” he said.

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