The Connecticut Department of Transportation is studying a possible expansion of the eastern Connecticut I-95 corridor, within and outside the right of way, including lengthening on and off ramps. The Planning and Environmental Linkages Study is charged with identifying solutions to reduce congestion and lower travel time between Branford and the Rhode Island border.
The study covers approximately 59 miles of highway and would include 45 interchanges, two major bridges – Baldwin Bridge and Gold Star Memorial Bridge – three counties and 13 towns.
In an informational meeting on Tuesday, members of the study team outlined the current problems with the corridor, along with a timeline for the project. The study will consider environmental, community and economic conditions, and will most likely result in several breakout projects along the highway. A final draft is expected by fall 2023.
The project team started analyzing existing and future traffic and safety conditions to identify issues in early 2022, and found numerous.
Of note, 48 percent of interchanges were too closely spaced, there were five left-hand ramps in Groton alone and 70 percent of the off-ramps and 55 percent of the on-ramps were too short. According to the Connecticut Crash Data Repository, from 2018 to 2020, there were 2,925 crashes on the busy corridor, with a quarter including an injury and 19 fatalities.
Gary Sojka, PEL project manager, told attendees at the meeting that the department was in the very early stages of the study and did not have any recommendations for specific improvements, but was looking for suggestions until the end of the public comment period – Nov. 30.
Asked if the department would consider adding lanes to specific sections of the highway or widening the corridor altogether, Kim Lesay, chief of the Bureau of Policy and Planning, said it was on their minds, as was the problem of “induced demand,” which could offset the value of additional lanes.
Lesay said that while adding lanes does provide extra capacity, they could also draw additional drivers to I-95, creating an increase in traffic.
“We have seen this across the nation. There’s many, many studies about this phenomenon,” Lesay said. “It is real and we do recognize it, and our travel simulation modeling does include an induced demand factor.”
Krista Goodin, the project manager with CDM Smith, a Boston-based engineering and construction firm, said any potential lane expansion would be limited, but that staff were considering other options to lessen congestion.
“We understand that there is a limitation to right of way expansion along the I-95 corridor. It’s just a reality that the department understands,” Goodin said. “But the PEL process, it allows us to look at not just specifics to adding lanes, but also those non-widening strategies that can help improve the capacity.”
Goodin said potential non-widening strategies included reconfiguring lanes, modifying interchanges and utilizing transportation systems management like ramp metering.
The PEL process would also look at previous studies and transportation plans, Goodin said, to understand previously identified community needs. She said the team had reviewed the I-95 Corridor Feasibility Study Final Report, originally conducted in 2004 and updated in 2018.
Attendees raised concerns about Exits 71 and 72 between Old Lyme and East Lyme, and asked if the elimination of Exit 71 would be a consideration of the study. Marissa Pfaffinger, the principal engineer, said the team noted the short weaving distances between the exits, and said the issue has been considered in past studies.
“Actually, going all the way back to 2004, the idea of eliminating one of those interchanges – either 71 or 72 – was discussed,” Pfaffinger said.
Pfaffinger said the previous study provided a great foundation to understand original public opinions and a process to follow if the department decided to remove one of the exits.
The study would also consider areas with construction plans underway. During the session, attendees questioned the dangers of Exits 74 and 75 in Niantic, where CTDOT will be reconstructing interchange 74 in spring 2023.
Scott Harley, the engineering lead, said the design team noted a number of deficiencies in the Niantic area, including narrow shoulders, steep vertical grades and close spacing between on and off ramps.
“Also in this area, when you’re traveling in the northbound direction, Exit 76 is a left-hand off-ramp to I-395 which is really opposite of what driver expectations are as most of the offerings in Connecticut are always located on the right side of the highway,” Harley explained.
Harley said the design team would continue to investigate alternatives in the faulty area regardless of scheduled construction.
In addition to highlighting traffic and safety conditions, CTDOT also conducted an environmental review to identify potential impacts from work on the interstate.
Goodin said there were 45 areas along the 59-mile stretch that cross floodplains and channel crossings, 16 areas within the coastal zone, 62 historic properties, and 18 communities with environmental justice concerns.
Goodin said the study would require a formal federal environmental review phase, under the National Environmental Policy Act, but would also allow the team to identify some early actions that CTDOT could take to address concerns that may not require an environmental review.
Goodin said the Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection were already involved in the study process.
Additionally, CTDOT offered assurances that the department would consult with local governments to find appropriate solutions for individual municipalities. Sojka said the team had meetings scheduled with local councils of government over the next couple of months.
From the end of 2022 until spring 2023, the study team will develop screening methodology and identify reasonable alternatives before releasing the final report in fall 2023.