Fiasco

 

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How one 3.4-mile project on I-84 east of Waterbury took six years to complete, cost nearly $100 million and left behind bankruptcies, lawsuits, lost jobs, accidents, injuries, and an endless trail of traffic tie-ups in its wake.

When Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) project engineer Jim Riutto left his worksite trailer on the afternoon of Feb. 15, 2006, he noticed a small pothole on one of the newly paved on-ramps to Interstate-84. "An easy fix," he thought at the time. But when he looked at it again a week later, the "pothole" had grown into a sinkhole measuring 6 feet across by 6 inches deep.

Without knowing it, Riutto had stumbled upon what turned out to be the first red flag of one of the greatest scandals and road-building fiascos in Connecticut history.

I-84, sometimes known as the Yankee Expressway, wends its way through central Connecticut like a 98-mile concrete ribbon. Built during the light-traffic days of the early and mid-1960s, it enters the state in Danbury and exits at Union. Because much of it was routed through, or over, built-up areas, many sections have hard-to-maneuver left-side exits, closely spaced interchanges and roller-coaster turns.

These problems are not easy to fix; after all, they are cast in stone, or at least concrete. Nevertheless, because of steadily increasing traffic demands, ConnDOT came up with a plan to remedy them in stages. Project 151-274 dealt with a 3.4-mile stretch between Waterbury and Cheshire. The fix for it included widening the roadway while improving ramps, lighting and overpasses. And this is where Riutto discovered the sinkhole, at Exit 25A, on an entrance ramp entering the highway going west from Austin Road.

As engineers began looking into the problems that led to the sunken area, they opened up a motherlode of fraud, negligence and mismanagement.

Consider this: According to plans, the 3.4-mile section was supposed to include some 300 storm drains. A closer inspection revealed that 275 of them were either misaligned, improperly graded, built with defective materials or not there at all. In places, the brick linings of underground basins had no mortar binding them, threatening a collapse of surface pavement. Gravel from median barriers washed into these basins through gaps in the walls. Wooden beams clogged pipes, and many underground components requiring concrete structural support were shored up with plywood. Several thousand feet of drainpipes needed to redirect water from underground tanks had not been installed. In effect, they were storm drains to nowhere.  

But there was more. The improper fitting of steel components on an overpass would require the complete rebuilding of its deck. And problems with the mast arms of the median light poles were discovered when one of them detached and fell onto the highway.

These faults, plus many more, turned what was to be a less-than-three-year project into one lasting more than six years. Countless motorists have had to endure dozens of lane reconfigurations and long, frustrating delays. There have been accidents and injuries directly attributable to the construction defects. Commerce has suffered. So have state taxpayers, whose bill for the project has risen by nearly $50 million.

As many of those drivers stuck in traffic must have wondered: How could this have happened?

Fiasco

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