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One of the more notorious aspects of living in Connecticut is the interminable highway commutes. It's not a new problem, and not one that's easy to fix: As the article "Road Rage" from February 2003 explains, years-long highway upgrade projects are difficult to implement and can only guess at future needs, and driver habits tend to adapt to expansions, often negating much of the expected benefit.

Accurately predicting the future is never easy, of course, but there is at least one forecast in this article we can now check. The story refers to one study which predicts that up to "172,000 cars a day will drive on Fairfield County’s section of the [I-95] turnpike by 2020—a 30 percent increase" over the then-current numbers. That was probably a worst-case scenario, but either way, the reality isn't quite that bad: Data from the DOT in 2017 and current DOT numbers for 2020 and 2021 both describe about 150,000 cars passing through Norwalk daily — well exceeding the 130,000 number from 18 years ago, but coming to only about half the predicted increase. (In 2020 specifically, of course, those numbers dipped dramatically for a time, dropping at points to fewer than 50,000 vehicles per day during the early days of the pandemic; but traffic largely returned to normal by the summer. Either way, the author and the DOT can be forgiven for missing that specific detail.)

This article received a Second Place award in the General Reporting category from the Society of Professional Journalists. It is being posted to the web in 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration. 


ROAD RAGE

The Connecticut Turnpike between Greenwich and New Haven has been choking on its own exhaust fumes for decades, and now it's even hurting the state's economy. Doesn't anyone know how to fix it?

By David Howard

2003-03-Feb RESTORED small.jpg

In 2000, Norwalk-based pharmaceuticals company Purdue Pharma was ready to expand. After looking for a year or so, company officials found a facility in Stamford that was convenient to I-95 and the Metro- North railroad and would allow them to consolidate Purdue’s six locations into one. It was ideal in every way except one: A companywide survey showed Purdue’s 1,100 employees, most of whom lived to the north and east, were virtually unanimous in their desire to avoid driving a longer stretch of the Connecticut Turnpike.

“It was only seven miles, but those are turnpike miles,” says Diana Lenkowski, Purdue’s vice president of facilities. “They made it perfectly dear that they were not happy. I distinctly remember a survey comment from one colleague who has young children; she wrote, ‘Thank you for making my life a living hell.’ And that was quite representative.”

Purdue assuaged its employees by creating a substantial new set of commuting options and public-transportation incentives. (If the company had just told employees to roll with it, Lenkowski says, “I would’ve been lynched.”) On the first day the new facility opened, a massive I-95 traffic jam ensnared many employees. “The general counsel stormed in saying it took him an extra hour and demanding to know who made the decision to move to Stamford,” Lenkowski recalls.

Veterans of the turnpike know that an hour should hardly even be classified as a delay. Ed Houghton recalls a day last September when there were accidents on both the turnpike and the Merritt Parkway during his morning commute. It took three hours to drive the 30 miles from his Shelton home to his office at Pitney Bowes in Stamford—roughly the same amount of time he had spent driving to the New Hampshire-Maine border a few weeks earlier on vacation.

Houghton is Pitney Bowes’ director of workforce effectiveness, so Connecticut Turnpike congestion is more than a personal migraine; it is his professional albatross. “The people coming out of the parking garages often look like they’re finishing their day instead of starting it,” he says.

Motorists who spend much time driving the turnpike between New Haven and Greenwich are no doubt familiar with that hundred-yard stare. Connecticut has other road woes: I-84 around Waterbury is often gummed up and Hartford’s downtown interstate tangle is no treat. But nothing quite compares to the southernmost reaches of I-95, the sole commercial artery linking Connecticut to metro New York and points south (the Merritt Parkway is supposed to be for passenger cars only). That 50-mile stretch is easily the state’s most chronically congested section of highway, and is arguably one of the worst traffic nightmares in the country. If the highway forms the spine of Connecticut, as some have called it, then on many days we are in a state of paralysis.

Certainly, the turnpike lacks the charm and aesthetic appeal of the Merritt. To drive from the mansions and manicured perfection of Fairfield County residential neighborhoods out onto I-95 is to enter into a scary jack-in-the-box world of lumpy, jarring pavement, phantom lines marking old lane shifts, and shoulders strewn with old mufflers, shredded tire treads, rubber- scarred Jersey barriers and random sets of toppled orange-and- white barrels.

Worst of all, it’s unsafe. Darien’s First Selectman Bob Harrel says that with lanes narrowed for construction, there’s at least one major accident a day in his town. The highway is loaded with big trucks and anxious drivers, by definition a lethal blend.

The turnpike weighs heavily on people; it even influences their life decisions. James Wang decided to buy a condo in New Haven in part because he’d be able to live and work in between New Haven’s Q Bridge and Fairfield, two of the turnpike’s notoriously choked-off areas. “I won’t avoid all the traffic,” says Wang, director of the Greater Bridgeport Regional Planning Agency, “but at least I’ll be able to stay away from the worst of it.”

And the problems go well beyond personal quality-of-life issues. One recent report by Michael Gallis & Associates suggests the highway’s hardening arteries could effectively cut Fairfield County off from New York, New Jersey and beyond. “As congestion increases,” the report says, “this corridor will not offer the level of access to the economic activities and hubs necessary to support Connecticut’s institutions, businesses and people. Congestion effectively blocks economic activity from extending farther [north] than Stamford.”

***

All of these problems would have been unimaginable to the highway’s creators, all of whom thought they were ushering Connecticut into the Promised Land. When it was created in the 1950s, the Connecticut Turnpike was seen as the state’s yellow- brick road to prosperity—a blacktopped emblem of fervent postwar optimism. The superhighway, as it was called then, even got a cheery ’50s slogan: the Ribbon of Hope.

State officials began angling for a freeway—believing it would rev the state’s economy—as far back as 1942, when Connecticut joined a coalition of Eastern states from Massachusetts to Virginia asking for federal help to build what they called the 7- State Highway. The idea never flew, so Connecticut eventually took up the project on its own, and in 1954 the legislature voted to create what was then called the Greenwich-Killingly Highway. The $464 million turnpike was the most ambitious public-works effort in state history. The highway commission created a special administrative unit for the road, and engineers consulted with designers from 26 engineering firms before beginning construction in 1955.

Despite its early promise, the road has since taken on a personality worthy of a Stephen King story. Gov. John Davis Lodge’s open campaigning for the highway cost him the support of

many of his wealthy Fairfield County supporters and contributed to his re-election loss in 1954. “In a tailspin after the loss,” the Advocate of Stamford reported," [Lodge] had a nervous breakdown and received electric shock treatments, not uncommon at the time.”

He recovered enough to attend a January 1958 ceremony officially opening the Connecticut Turnpike, as the road had come to be known. His successor, Abraham Ribicoff, called the new road a great construction achievement, and police said the highway “would soon prove a boon to their traffic situation,” according to the Associated Press. State highway officials called it “the longest urban and suburban section of modern expressway to be found anywhere.”

About 150 cars and trucks waited in line, some for nearly two hours, for the highway to open. In the first six hours after the ribbon cutting, 23,225 vehicles traveled on it. But down in Norwalk, there were already ominous signs of things to come. Some drivers there used the new turnpike bridge as a shortcut, backing up traffic at the exits onto West and East avenues. “At West Avenue alone,” the AP reported, “police said they counted as many as 80 traffic violations between 4 and 6 p.m. as motorists tried impatiently to get out of the bottleneck.

Years later, the road was the scene of two of Connecticut’s worst highway tragedies of the last century. In January 1983, a tractor-trailer collided with three cars at the Stratford toll plaza, killing seven people and sounding the death knell for the turnpike’s tollbooths. Six months later, a section of the Mianus River Bridge collapsed in Greenwich, killing three and critically injuring three others.

Shortly after Lodge died in 1985, the highway was renamed the Governor John Davis Lodge Turnpike—but virtually no one uses that name.

Why is I-95 so bad now? The easy answer is that in the ’50s no one could have imagined how transportation would change in the next half-century—how cars and trucks would get bigger, taller, faster and far more numerous. The road was built to handle 70,000 cars and trucks a day along its four-lane sections and 90,000 on its six-lane stretches; these days, it’s inundated by 130,000 vehicles a day in Fairfield County and 150,000 in the New Haven area. A decade ago, the morning peak lasted from 7 to 9 a.m.; now the rush hour lasts from 6:30 to 9:30, sometime! even 6 to 10, says Arthur Gruhn, chief engineer for the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Engineering and Highway Operations. In the afternoons, rush hour used to start between 4 and 5 p.m.; now it begins as early as 2:30. On summer Fridays—the sine qua non of I-95 traffic, with drivers heading to Rhode Island, Cape Cod and points north—northbound traffic starts backing up from New Haven at noon.

When Gruhn started working for the DOT in 1968, road repair and construction crews could close a lane from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. without causing congestion. “Today if we go out at 8 p.m. and close a lane, there will be a two-  to three-mile backup almost immediately," says Gruhn. “At midnight, we'll still have a one- to two-mile backup, and at 2 a.m. it would still slow the flow of traffic. The way it is now, if we waited until there was no traffic, we’d be down to doing work one to two hours a day.”

To try to manage the highway, the DOT opened a traffic-operations center in Bridgeport in 1994. There are 93 cameras mounted on overpasses up and down I-95, and the images that they beam back appear on monitors stacked in three rows like the old NASA space stations in the movies. Across the room are state police dispatchers who can instantly pass on information about accidents and breakdowns. It’s considered a cutting-edge facility in the traffic world, and the center gets visitors from places like India, Germany and China, says Liz Sussman, a feisty Long Islander who runs the center.

“I tell people that I’m not here to get rid of traffic,” she says. “You build bridges and tunnels to do that. My job is to manage the existing traffic, and that means getting quick, accurate information out to the public.”

The traffic center’s staff combats the dragon of I-95 congestion with many small swords. They post messages about accidents and delays on flashing roadside signs, simultaneously broadcasting the information on AM 530, the highway-advisory radio station. If there’s a turnpike closure and trucks get detoured, they can alter the traffic signals on U.S. 1, creating longer green lights to keep things moving. Perhaps the best innovation came six years ago, when the state DOT deployed a fleet of service vans; drivers are equipped with tools to fix flats and sweep away debris, fluid to replenish overheating radiators and gas for empty tanks. It's one initiative that has made a discernible difference. DOT statistics show that between Greenwich and Westport, the number of accidents from April to September 2002 increased by about a third over the previous year, but the time it took to clear the highway dropped on average from 45 to 37 minutes, and traffic took about four minutes less to clear.

From the vantage point of the operations center, traffic is moving fairly smoothly on a recent rainy Friday morning, notwithstanding a southbound highway sign that has been programmed to warn: Rush hour, 19 mi. delay, exits 31-13. "It looks pretty smooth," Sussman says. She looks at the monitors and raps on the wooden desk superstitiously. "I gotta slop saying that. You know, the thing that's working in our favor here is that a lot of people are now working at home on Fridays. But Friday afternoons are still bad. In the afternoon the rush hour will start anywhere from an hour to two earlier.” But Sussman says there’s only so much they can do. There are no cameras on the Merritt—a historic designation prohibits cosmetic alterations like camera mounts—so the operations center is never sure, in case of an accident on I-95, whether to suggest that motorists use the parkway.

While Sussman is talking, a staffer notices a broken-down van in the highway’s center northbound lane near exit 26 in Bridgeport. He immediately notifies police, dispatches a service van and flashes a message in Fairfield notifying drivers that the center lane is blocked up ahead. Everyone slows down to watch the monitor, but several minutes later, the van starts driving again. “There we got lucky,” says Scott Campbell, the DOT traffic engineer who oversees the center. “If that was southbound, that was there for what, four or five minutes? That would have totally screwed us up, and you’d have the highway backed up to exit 30 or 31 in a matter of minutes."

***

The Connecticut Turnpike’s opening was a huge event in Darien. Before the highway was built, the only major artery through the town was U.S. 1, the Boston Post Road, which cuts through the heart of downtown. Traffic was insufferable. When the legislature approved the highway, Darien’s powerful stale representative got his town at the top of the list for construction. And for a while, the highway helped. "It was wonderful when it happened,” recalls First Selectman Harrel.

Now, there’s a powerful feeling of deja vu. When the DOT added a southbound lane in the late '90s, traffic on the highway was nightmarish. Residents were relieved when the project ended in 2001 after nearly five years—only to learn that a $35 million median-reconstruction and repaving project ould begin on that same stretch the following April. The latest project will run until November 2004.

That’s generally the way it goes, says the DOT's Arthur Gruhn; By the time crews finish routine maintenance work between New Haven and Greenwich, they have to start over again. Congestion slows construction, which creates more congestion, which creates longer periods of construction.

And just like back in the days prior to the turnpikes creation, there’s once again all kinds of traffic—including out-of-state and commercial vehicles—roaming the streets of Darien. “People get frustrated and they get off onto what I call I-95A," Harrel says, referring to the Boston Post Road. “They have no idea where they are, and they start cutting people off and changing lanes—and there's a lot of four-letter-word work. It’s a bad scene destined only to get worse.”

Darien’s school system has lost top-ranked teaching candidates who could neither afford to live in town nor negotiate the commute. The quantity and severity of the accidents puts a heavy strain on the town’s volunteer EMT and fire departments.

Worst of all, though, is the creeping feeling that Darien—and other towns along the route—can’t really pin ail the blame on outsiders and 18-wheelers. Because of l-95's importance as a commercial route, many have long believed that commercial traffic contributes mightily to congestion. But the more the analysts and engineers dissect and analyze the highway, the more they turn up locals as the culprits. Bruce Garrett, the DOT’s transportation planning administrator, says the average car trip on the turnpike is only seven miles—which means that "a tremendous number of people are getting on and driving for two or three exits and getting off,” he says. And that’s not what the road was built for.

There are 54 exits along those 50 miles of highway, a level of accessibility that invite people to hop on and off. But when transportation officials recently floated the idea of closing a few exits, area residents screeched in protest. Similarly, Metro-North parking is at capacity, but many Fairfield County residents object to having more lots or parking garages built in their towns, fearing worse traffic problems. “These are the same people say, ‘Provide more public transportation," Gruhn says. And towns haven’t made matters any easier by okaying large industrial parks built on their outskirts, far from train stations and surrounded by seas of parking.

Fairfield County, it turns out, is no longer a Manhattan suburb. There are now as many people commuting into Greenwich as commuting out. The riders who travel between Connecticut stations make up the fastest growing segment of Metro-North customers. But like all Americans, people in the area Iove their cars. There are 17,000 registered vehicles in Darien, a town of 19,000, including children. “We’ve got a car-and-a-half for every registered driver,” First Selectman Harrel says. “It’s like that Jack Nicholson line in the movies: ‘You can’t handle the truth,'" says state police Lt. Robert Tolomeo of Troop G in Bridgeport. “I really don’t think people can. But there will be a point in time when some hard decisions are going to have to be made, because nothing can give anymore.”

***

And what does the future hold? At the moment, there are no definite answers. The state is spending S500 million to expand and streamline a four- to five-mile section of I-95 in Bridgeport, a project due for completion in 2005. A complex transit-improvement program centered around New Haven’s Q Bridge will cost $ 1 billion, the most expensive public-works project in state history, and will not be finished until 2012.

But the real hope for the future came last year, when the state's Transportation Strategy Board, chaired by Nelson “Oz” Griebel, president of the MetroHartford Regional economic Alliance, embarked on a mission to unravel the way we move around Connecticut. A variety of groups, businesses and commuters weighed in on the Connecticut Turnpike problem, offering suggestions ranging from adding cars to Metro- North trains, to widening both I-95 and the Merritt, to creating pedestrian and bike paths. State Rep. Lawrence Miller of Stratford suggested an entire redesign of I-95, while others argued for the construction of a second deck on the turnpike. There is discussion of putting more freight on water and rail to reduce commercial traffic. “This is a big-picture moment,” said Chris Bruhl, CEO of the Southwestern Area Commerce and Industry Association, as the panel went to work. “This is not just an add-a-lane-to-the-highway moment.”

But when push came to shove, the transit board wound up slinking past most of the hard questions—including expanding I-95, losing exits and allowing drivers to use breakdown lanes during rush hour. Its report, issued in mid-December, proposed following up its one-year study with more studies, effectively postponing decisions on flashpoint issues like reinstating tolls. The board did suggest spending $4.8 billion on improvements to mass transit and airports and some new road construction, along with increases in gas and sales taxes to pay for it—all of which will have to somehow make it through the current, budget-obsessed session of the General Assembly.

“That’s going to require some political skill,” the DOT’s Garrett says. “We already cut the gas tax because people thought it was too high. It won’t be popular putting pricing it back in."

Many are frustrated with the lack of urgency and originality in the latest effort to solve the traffic conundrum. “It's regrettable that the same old, same old is being trotted out again," says Jara Burnett, vice president for public issues for the state’s League of Women Voters. "It's disappointing. We can’t imagine why they didn’t look into some less costly and more imaginative solutions.”

Of course, resources are scarce all around. Connecticut spends $450 million annually just to maintain its 5,000 miles of highway and 250 Metro-North cars, and that's barely enough to keep up. Ultimately, people will either have to drive less or sit in traffic more. One projection suggests that 172,000 cars a day will drive on Fairfield County’s section of the turnpike by 2020—a 30 percent increase over today's overload. “If I get on the turnpike to go for a couple of miles and everybody else keeps doing the same thing, guess what? None of us is going to be very happy out there," Darien’s First Selectman Harrel says. He thinks that with more rail cars, Metro-North can serve Fairfield County like an above-ground subway: “Behavior modification is what progressive government is all about.”

Pitney Bowes, Purdue Pharma and other companies in Fairfield County have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars creating Metro-North shuttles, offering flexible hours and telecommuting options, renting parking spaces at train stations, and offering stipends for employees taking public transportation. Some have added convenience services—an ATM, dry cleaning and photo-developing shops—so that employees can manage more easily without their cars. “If you think about the loss in productivity alone, it’s much more expensive to hire new employees than it is to invest in this,” says Houghton, of Pitney Bowes.

And—surprise, surprise—people decided not to drive. When Purdue Pharma was in Norwalk, about 20 employees took Metro North; that number has jumped to 340. Those who drive will always face a daily crap shoot. Diana Lenkowski, who put most of the company’s new commuting programs into effect, saw her eight-minute drive increase to at least 30. She can see the highway from her office, a view that often influences her decisions about when she heads home. “Sometimes I look up and see it moving and figure I’ll throw my work in my bag and make a run for it before it gets bad," she says. “Yesterday it snowed and traffic stopped around 1, and I mean parking-lot stopped. It was around 7:45 when I left. Really, it’s something you're always thinking of. It’s a part of life you never really escape."

This article originally appeared in the February 2003 issue of Connecticut Magazine. Read more stories from past issues at connecticutmag.com/archives