Four decades later, Meriden hopes to deliver on promise of simpler traffic pattern
Four decades later, Meriden hopes to deliver on promise of simpler traffic pattern
March 9, 2014 01:00AM
By Dan Brechlin
MERIDEN — Before Howard Weissberg became the city’s associate engineer, he and his family would shop at the Stop & Shop at the intersection of East Main and Broad streets. It was not until he had a job interview with the Meriden Public Works Department in 2011 that Weissberg, a Middlefield resident, ventured west of that Stop & Shop.
Weissberg went to his interview at City Hall and then decided to drive downtown, an area of the city unbeknown to him, with a historically confusing and complicated traffic pattern. Besides the one-way traffic on West Main and Hanover streets, there are smaller one-way streets and Perkins Square, which is often among the most troublesome areas.
“As soon as I (drove downtown), I thought to myself ‘there has got to be a better way to do this,’ ” Weissberg said.
For nearly two years, Weissberg has been among those working closely on not only reverting traffic to a two-way pattern, but also solving the Perkins Square dilemma, eliminating sidewalk bump-outs and figuring out the best way to make Pratt Street a gateway into downtown. On Tuesday, Weissberg and other city officials will present the plan to the public at the Meriden Public Library at 6 p.m.
“We’re really trying to do this in a way that makes sense,” Weissberg said of the proposal, noting that, while it may be complex and expensive, it could solve significant issues. “We actually want to see this happen. We get one shot at this. This is really the opportunity we have to take advantage of all of the things that are happening and do downtown correctly.”
Traffic was initially switched to one-way in the 1970s after the first part of Interstate 691 was built. Business owners were assured that once work was completed traffic patterns would be shifted back to two-way. Forty years later, the direction of traffic has yet to change.
Bump-outs and bricks
A popular trend in the late 1980s and early 1990s involved streetscape projects in downtown areas. Meriden followed suit, with the installation of new sidewalks and bricks in addition to the bump-outs. Thought of as something that would enhance the downtown aesthetically, the protruding sidewalks limit space for parking and significantly narrow one of the city’s main roads. Under a new plan, nearly all of the downtown bump-outs would be removed, Weissberg said. The only remaining ones would be in areas with expected high pedestrian traffic, including the area in front of police headquarters and Meriden Superior Court.
Public Works Director Robert Bass said the bump-outs make snow removal difficult. With numerous snowstorms this winter, Bass said, snow removal has been costly.
“You gain efficiencies in many ways by taking the bump-outs out,” Bass said. “Right now, we go down there and have to remove all of the snow because of the impact it has on the streets and sidewalks ... Instead of having 13 guys go down there and maybe some rented trucks, we can have maybe four guys and no rented trucks. So we’re looking at dollars here and there.”
Crosswalks and bump-outs would be removed throughout downtown Meriden, Weissberg said. While they may look nice, the inset brick has been popping out in many locations, requiring regular maintenance.
“We want to design an attractive downtown, but we also want to make it keep looking nice over the next 20 years and more,” Weissberg said. “Everything looks great when it’s built, but what happens 20 years from now? You’re seeing the aftereffects of that right now downtown ... It wasn’t designed with long-term maintenance in mind.”
When the bricks were installed, many of them were purchased by residents or organizations and businesses and inscribed. Though the bricks will be removed, they will not be discarded, Bass said. There’s nothing definite, but Bass said city officials are working on ideas to incorporate the bricks into a new plan.
In addition to widening the street to make way for two-way traffic along West Main Street, the removal of bump-outs will also improve the on-street parking situation. Maneuvering around the bump-outs is often a challenge, Weissberg said, and results in traffic being brought to a halt.
Also halting traffic on a regular basis are delivery trucks, Weissberg said. Along West Main Street, plans call for three loading zones that will allow trucks to pull to the side of the road while traffic continues.
“Any time you’re in downtown, you get stuck behind something that is parked out in the middle of a lane,” Weissberg said. “When you go to two-way, that can’t happen.”
Downtown business owners have been asking the city to remove bump-outs and restore two-way traffic for years, Economic Development Director Juliet Burdelski said. Solving some of the issues along West Main Street, she said, will make it more business-friendly — with some more parking — and pedestrian- and bicyclist-friendly.
“I think that the current circulation system just doesn’t work for what we’re trying to do,” Burdelski said. “We want to have a pedestrian-friendly environment. We want to encourage foot traffic. We want to have a good connection to the train station. We want to have parking that is easy to find, easy to get in and out of. I think this plan really does address a lot of those concerns.”
‘A blessing and a curse’
The overall downtown plan calls for the Meriden Hub site to be redeveloped into a park that will double as flood retention space and have a trail connecting to the existing linear trails. The state has plans to build a new train station and improve the existing rail line. There are also plans to remove the five Mills Memorial Apartments buildings and redevelop housing around the city.
With numerous projects and competing interests, Weissberg agreed with Burdelski that the goal is to work with all of the parties, but he said not everything will be perfect for everybody.
“There are businesses, motorists, pedestrians, those who use public transportation, bicyclists, and then the parking,” he said. “All of these people want to use the road and not just the road, but the right of way ... There are a whole slew of challenges there and we’re not going to meet everybody’s needs completely, but we want to be meeting the greatest number of needs at the same time.”
By reverting to two-way traffic, there will be an opportunity to eliminate most of the confusion at Perkins Square. In the section of downtown that stretches from the East Main and Perkins streets intersection to the YMCA-owned building on the corner of Hanover and West Main streets, there are five small streets, all of them one-way. Each has its own purpose, mostly short connections to access a major road. Over the years, however, the Perkins Square area has mostly caused confusion, especially for motorists from out of town, and on occasion has resulted in drivers going the wrong way.
“It’s the intersection everybody loves to hate,” Weissberg said.
To lessen confusion, State Street Extension would be closed off and transferred to the owner of the Wells Fargo bank building. It would become the access point for the bank while the city would trade the street in exchange for some of the bank property’s southern section. The trade-off, which has been discussed with the manager of the building and property owner, would allow the city to extend sidewalks to create a more pedestrian-friendly area and convert the one-way Perkins Street to two-way. The state Department of Transportation has proposed making State Street a limited-access street in order for buses and taxis to better access West Main and East Main streets as part of the improved rail line plans.
To the west of State Street Extension and the railroad tracks, the northbound lane that connects to Colony Street would be eliminated and converted to green space, connecting to the existing green space, Bass said.
“It gives you a little more green downtown,” he said, noting the most visual changes will be in Perkins Square. “As far as physical changes, that’s really what is going to jump out at you.”
The other two lanes to the west, one that heads south from Colony Street and one heading north from Hanover Street to West Main Street, would remain. The existing curbs between the two would be removed and would allow for two-way traffic.
With Perkins Square remedied, Weissberg said, Hanover Street could act as a throughway. Rather than sending all westbound and southbound traffic on West Main Street, Weissberg said those traveling toward South Meriden or Cook Avenue could travel along Hanover. All of those heading into downtown or farther down West Main Street could stick to West Main.
Further complicating the project is the railroad crossing that runs through the center of downtown. With expanded rail service expected to begin in 2016, with an increase in the number of trains going through the city, there will be concerns.
“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Weissberg said of the railroad crossing. “It’s great to have it, but it definitely creates some challenges.”
The city and state have been working on a plan to better link the traffic lights to the railroad crossing signal. Traffic is expected to be able to flow better when the new rail system is implemented because the crossing gates will not be lowered as long as they are now.
“It’s going to be a very sophisticated system,” Bass said.
Weissberg and Bass are aware of common suggestions that would simplify everything: Build a bridge over the tracks, or send traffic underground. In order to send traffic over the tracks, however, a bridge would have to be more than 22 feet high. Because of the physical constraints and the high cost, it’s not possible, both said.
Sending traffic underground might be even more complicated, Bass said, explaining that it would require moving the water mains and gas lines, as well as the brick sewer system and Harbor Brook.
“The costs would just be astronomical,” Bass said.
Gateway to downtown?
While improving the way traffic moves through downtown is a top priority, improving Pratt Street is also high on the list. As proposed in recent years, it would make more sense to promote Pratt Street as a gateway to downtown Meriden, Bass said. Traffic from Interstate 691 using the State Street or Columbia Street exits can be confusing and not aesthetically pleasing.
“There would need to be some signage changes off 691 directing people to use Pratt Street,” Bass said. “But how much better can you get? You come down off of Broad Street and there’s this big, beautiful boulevard and you come down Pratt Street to East Main Street ... It’s much more inviting than the current route and a way to rebrand the downtown.”
Rather than retaining four traffic lanes, raised curbing and trees would be installed down the center of Pratt Street to create a boulevard. Weissberg, who joked that an airplane could use Pratt as a runway, said the street is difficult for pedestrians to cross and encourages speeding.
By narrowing Pratt Street to two lanes with left-turn lanes incorporated, it would become easier to cross, parking lanes could remain, and a shared use or bicycle lane could also be installed. There would be areas along the boulevard that would be divided so motorists could turn onto some of the streets that connect to Pratt Street or into some of the businesses.
Another goal will be to create bicycle lanes in certain areas and possibly create a multi-use trail along Hanover Street. Pedestrian crossings will be reconfigured and made more visible, as would loading zones.
“We are still adding the finishing touches,” Weissberg said. “We have to figure out what type of sidewalk treatments will be used, where to put the splashes of color, where brick might work, where there are crosswalks, especially crosswalks in high-visibility, key locations ...”
The plans are 35 percent done, which is a major milestone in planning terms. The Department of Transportation recognizes the milestone as the completion of preliminary plans, which means it would be more likely to review and possibly support the project. Because the plans have hit 35 percent, Weissberg said, it made sense to invite the public to see them in case “there’s anything we missed or anything they like or don’t like.” In the future, city officials will work to locate traffic signals, crosswalks and other details.
Lack of funding
While the plans are detailed and could reshape traffic patterns throughout the city, it could be a costly project. A state grant allowed the city to plan for the project and hire a consultant, East Hartford-based CDM Smith. Other than that, there is no funding designated.
The city has twice applied for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant. A minimum of $10 million, the federal grant would be used to solve many of the problems. The city’s applications were denied, mostly because plans were not far enough along, but Weissberg said he is hopeful now because plans have progressed and other projects are underway. In the last two application processes, New Haven and Hartford were awarded funds. A new round of funding is available and the city will apply by the April 28 deadline.
If the grant cannot be secured, Weissberg said, it is still the city’s intention to move forward with “small, discreet projects.” For instance, Weissberg said, Cook Avenue between West Main Street and Hanover Street could be switched to two-way traffic at little cost.
“It can be done in phases,” he said of the full project. “We’re hoping as plans have matured and as we’re contributing money to the effort, it will help our chances and garner some support.”