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Future of Meriden interchange project unclear as debate over tolls continues

Future of Meriden interchange project unclear as debate over tolls continues

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MERIDEN — When Gov. Ned Lamont visited the city last week, he pointed to improvements planned for the harrowing triangle where I-91 meets I-691 and Route 15.

“If I could accelerate that interchange, I could speed up traffic in both directions over a significant time,” Lamont said.

The reconfiguration is in the $25 million design phase and the project is expected to cost a total of $290 million, according to the state Department of Transportation. The heavily congested area moves 120,000 vehicles along I-91, 80,000 vehicles from I-691 and 60,000 vehicles on Route 15, according to the DOT. 

The triangle forces “significant weaving maneuvers occurring at closely spaced on/off ramps,” and “inadequate geometric elements such as shoulder widths, minimum radius, grade and vertical clearances, lane balance, etc.” and is missing interchange connections, according to the DOT.   

There are higher than normal crash rates on I-91 south and Route 15 north, according to police and transportation officials.

Design approaches would address weaving and congestion issues by focusing on improvements to the existing roadway, including reconfiguring ramps.

But the money for the reconfiguration remains in limbo with other state highway projects as lawmakers debate how to fund transportation improvements.

This past legislative session ended with Lamont unable to convince lawmakers to tap into electronic tolling on the Merritt Parkway, and Interstates 84, 91 and 95. The administration has said tolling could raise about $800 million annually by 2024 or 2025.

“What I like about the tolling method is out-of-staters pay for 40 percent of it,” Lamont said. “It’s not bonding on the backs of the taxpayers.”

Unlikely ally

Lamont added that the federal government has pledged its support for an infrastructure package if the state can produce an independent revenue stream. 

“We’ve had very strong support from the Trump administration,” Lamont said. ”It’s an unlikely ally, but we’re working hard with them.”

Lamont has reportedly dispatched Chief of Staff Ryan Drajewicz to maximize opportunities that involve federal money to pay for improvements to the state’s roads, bridges and mass transit infrastructure. But it doesn’t mean tolls are off the table.

It is not clear when Lamont will present a plan to lawmakers.

“The I-91, I-691, Route 15 interchange is one project that the (state DOT) has identified as an instant time-saver which must be viewed as a necessity for Connecticut commuters,” said Lamont spokesman Max Reiss. “Improvements from New Haven to the New York state line on I-95 could also reduce travel times by 30 minutes or more.”

Compromise on tolls?

Republican members in the General Assembly vehemently oppose polls and support a plan that prioritizes $700 million in bonding for transportation projects. 

Some Democrats are also against tolls and want to see bonding for transportation projects attached to $1.4 billion in bonding for schools and other projects.

“My hope is to sit down with both sides and reach some sort of a compromise,” Lamont said last week.” It’s so important we make these investments going forward.”

 In the meantime, the triangle is in the design phase and sits on a list of priority projects in the state awaiting funding, including the Waterbury I-84-Route 8 mixmaster and the realignment of the Hartford viaduct.

“The construction money hasn’t been allocated,” state Rep. Emil “Buddy” Altobello, said of the Meriden interchange. “It’s very congested and unsafe. It might take priority because it’s dangerous. It may boil to the top.”

Altobello, D-Meriden, said he looks forward to seeing what Lamont will put before lawmakers. 

“Hopefully, there will be a comprehensive plan regarding tolling options presented in the near future,” Altobello said. “At that time the legislature will evaluate it and make a determination. The federal government has spent an average of $700 million per year. If there is a way to unlock additional dollars, Gov. Lamont will find that and present it to the legislature.”. 

Twitter: @Cconnbiz

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