(To read Part 1 of this article, follow this link.)
Before construction on the Connecticut Turnpike began in 1955, construction had already begun on what would become the non-toll section of I-95 between Waterford and Stonington. This section was originally intended as an improvement to US 1 and opened in 1943 as a 3.6-mile-long, four-lane section of roadway between Waterford and in Groton. Part of it was the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, which was a toll bridge over the Thames River between New London and Groton. Tolls on this bridge were collected until 1963.
A parallel I-95 span over the Thames River was constructed between New London and Groton in the 1970s. After it opened, improvements were made to the original Gold Star Memorial Bridge, as well as to the approach interchanges west of the bridge.
Soon after the Connecticut Turnpike opened in 1958, a 3.5-mile-long section connecting it to the improved US 1 was completed. On December 12, 1964, the 16.6 miles of I-95 between Waterford and the Connecticut-Rhode Island border opened.
On January 19, 1983, a traffic accident at the Stratford toll plaza led state officials to consider ending the tolls on the Connecticut Turnpike. A tractor-trailer and three cars collided at the toll plaza, killing seven people and injuring many others.
Mianus River Bridge collapse
Only a few months after the toll plaza tragedy, a 100-foot section of the northbound Mianus River Bridge collapsed into the river early on the morning of June 28, 1983. Vehicles fell 70 feet into the river; three people died. Built in the 1950s, the bridge used the “pin-and-hanger” design, which was commonly used on highway spans at that time. Steel pins holding the bridge’s horizontal beams together failed, causing the span to drop into the river. The southbound section of the bridge was unharmed and remained open to traffic on its three lanes.
The northbound bridge was immediately closed; all local traffic was diverted to the Boston Post Road (US 1) and the Merritt Parkway. Through traffic between New York and New England was diverted onto I-84 and I-684. Less than a month later, a temporary bridge section was installed, which carried two lanes of northbound traffic.
In September 1983, the new permanent bridge over the Mianus River was opened to carry the approximately 90,000 vehicles that traveled on it daily.
After the toll plaza accident and the Mianus River Bridge collapse, Connecticut Governor William O’Neill began a $6.56 billion state program to “reconstruct and rehabilitate” Connecticut’s roads and bridges over a 10-year period. Funded by an increase in the state gasoline tax, the program led to barrier tolls being removed from the Connecticut Turnpike and from the state’s bridges. The turnpike’s tolls were removed on October 9, 1985; barrier tolls on all roads and bridges in the state were removed four years later. (However, to generate revenue lost from tolls, a controversial “highway fee” on trucks was proposed in 2018 and went into effect in 2021. To read more about it, follow this link.)
While poor design was the primary reason for the Mianus River Bridge failure, it was not the only one. National attention to the bridge’s collapse also drew attention to problems caused by deferred maintenance – particularly on bridges. Federal highway aid legislation had allocated funds for new highways and bridges since 1944; however, until 1976 no funds had been allocated for repair and maintenance of existing infrastructure.
In addition, most states and cities had allocated very limited funds for repairs and/or improvements. When the Mianus River Bridge collapsed, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) employed only 12 engineers, who worked in two-man teams to inspect the state’s more than 3,400 bridges.
Since then, ConnDOT has rehabilitated and replaced a number of bridges along the turnpike. For example, the four-lane Connecticut River Bridge, which connected Old Saybrook and Old Lyme, was built in 1948. ConnDOT replaced it with a new eight-lane bridge in 1993.
(Bridges and other infrastructure are still not inspected, repaired or replaced as often as needed in many cases. To read more about that topic, please see the FreightWaves Classics article “Fix the Bridges” Part 1 and Part 2.)
2004 accident shuts down the Connecticut Turnpike in Bridgeport
Despite the actions taken during the 1980s-90s, accidents could not be eliminated. A tanker truck carrying 9,000 gallons of fuel oil swerved to avoid a car that cut it off and subsequently overturned, hit a concrete barrier and split open, emptying its cargo onto the bridge carrying I-95 over Howard Avenue in Bridgeport on the evening of March 25, 2004. The fire caused by the fuel oil caused the bridge’s southbound lanes to partially melt; the structure failed and it fell four feet. Luckily, damage to the northbound lanes was limited. ConnDOT was able to reopen the bridge’s northbound lanes within three days. Within a week a temporary bridge was carrying southbound lanes of I-95 over Howard Avenue.
The Connecticut Turnpike today
As noted in Part 1 of this article, the Connecticut Turnpike was integrated into the Interstate Highway System (IHS), specifically Interstate 95 (I-95) and I-395. (The 19.1-mile-long, non-turnpike section of I-395 north of Killingly, originally built between 1964 and 1969, was re-designated I-395 in 1983.)
Connecticut Turnpike shields are no longer posted along the highway. However, ConnDOT continues to maintain and contract out services along the 14 turnpike service areas on I-95 and I-395.
Interestingly, the Connecticut Turnpike was designed and built in a different manner than other toll roads built prior to the IHS. Most toll roads in other states were/are operated under semi-autonomous, quasi-public toll road authorities. However, the Connecticut Turnpike was operated by the Connecticut Highway Department (later ConnDOT) from its inception. Also, in most other states, toll road revenues collected from motorists were kept by the toll road authority and utilized to finance the toll roads’ construction and upkeep. In Connecticut, during the period when tolls were collected along the Connecticut Turnpike, toll revenue went into the state’s general fund and was used for both highway and non-highway expenditures.
Connecticut’s population and traffic have grown considerably since the Connecticut Turnpike was opened in the late 1950s. Also, despite capital improvements and increased ridership on the Amtrak, Metro-North (New Haven) and Shore Line East rail lines that have helped divert drivers from the turnpike, congestion continues to be a major issue on the Connecticut Turnpike. Twenty-five years ago transportation officials stated that I-95 was at 180% of the rush hour capacity for which it was designed. In 1977 it had been at 80% rush hour capacity.
An unintended consequence that arose from the construction of the Connecticut Turnpike was that a mass migration of New York City residents began to southwest Connecticut. Over a period of years, this led to major residential and economic growth in Fairfield and New Haven counties. The Connecticut Turnpike, planned in large part as a through highway, became a primary commuter route to New York City.
The turnpike had been planned by the Connecticut Highway Department as a route to help residents of the state drive more efficiently. After being designated as part of the IHS, additional segments of I-95 opened in the 1960s that connected to Providence and Boston, and the turnpike became an integral part of the route to transport people and goods throughout the Northeast. The result was that much of the turnpike became functionally obsolete by 1965, when traffic exceeded the highway’s design capacity. The Connecticut Turnpike had been designed to carry 60,000 vehicles per day (VPD) on the four-lane sections and 90,000 VPD on the six-lane portion west of New Haven. In 2006, the turnpike carried 75,000-100,000 VPD east of New Haven, and 130,000-200,000 VPD between New Haven and the New York state line.
Several years ago, ConnDOT reported that I-95 carries approximately 130,000 vehicles per day through Fairfield County, approximately 150,000 vehicles daily through the New Haven area, approximately 70,000 vehicles per day through the Old Saybrook area, approximately 100,000 vehicles daily through the New London area, and approximately 25,000 vehicles per day just before the Connecticut-Rhode Island border.
Because of the congestion on the turnpike, the speed limit is 65 MPH along I-95 from exit 53 in East Haven north to exit 74 in Niantic, and from exit 87 in Groton north to the Connecticut-Rhode Island border. Speed limits through more urbanized areas range from 40 to 55 MPH.
Although there have been dozens of plans discussed to alleviate traffic congestion and improve safety on the turnpike over the decades (including building a second level above the existing highway), most have languished due to political infighting and lawsuits brought by special-interest groups.
Although most of the Connecticut Turnpike is signed as I-95 or I-395, the highway was designed and built before the IHS was established. Therefore, sections of the turnpike do not meet all interstate highway standards. In particular, overpasses along the turnpike range from 13.5 to 15 feet; IHS standards require overpasses to provide 16 feet of vertical clearance. In addition, interchanges are spaced too closely; a number of ramps and acceleration-deceleration lanes need to be lengthened. In some places, median and shoulder widths and curve radii also do not meet IHS standards.
As noted in Part 1, Connecticut is one of the nation’s most densely populated states, which complicates efforts to upgrade the turnpike to interstate standards. As profiled in other FreightWaves Classics articles, other major turnpikes (the Pennsylvania Turnpike [Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3], the New York State Thruway and the Maine Turnpike for example) feature widely spaced interchanges and generally run along the outskirts of major urban centers. However, the Connecticut Turnpike was built through the middle of several large cities (Stamford, Bridgeport and New Haven) and has over 90 interchanges along its length; 50 are along the 50-mile section between the New York state line and New Haven.
In addition, Connecticut did not acquire enough right-of-way to accommodate future expansion when the turnpike was built during the 1950s. Therefore, adjacent land must be seized to upgrade the roadway, resulting in lengthy and costly eminent domain battles between the state and landowners that do not wish to sell their property. Moreover, the turnpike passes through areas with some of the highest property values in the U.S., making land acquisition to expand the highway extremely costly.
Lastly, the turnpike was built through Long Island Sound’s environmentally sensitive ecosystems and wetlands (which was not a major issue in the 1950s). Therefore, most expansion projects entail lengthy environmental impact studies and litigation filed by environmental groups. Air pollution laws are also a problem, since Connecticut is in the federal statistical areas around New York City and it suffers from “consequences and special regulations applied to non-compliant air quality areas.” In 2000, a ConnDOT official commented during a public meeting, “If we had tried to build [the Connecticut Turnpike]/I-95 today, it would be impossible because of the sensitive ecosystems it passes through. It would never get approved.”
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, ConnDOT developed a comprehensive plan to improve the turnpike through heavily populated Fairfield and New Haven counties. ConnDOT began a 25-year, multibillion-dollar program in 1993 to upgrade the turnpike from the Connecticut River at Old Saybrook to the New York state line at Greenwich. Among the projects were the “complete reconstruction of several turnpike segments, including replacing bridges, adding travel lanes, reconfiguring interchanges, upgrading lighting and signage, and implementing the intelligent transportation system with traffic cameras, a variety of embedded roadway sensors and variable-message signs.” Other projects included a six-mile section through Bridgeport that was completely rebuilt to interstate standards. A long-term $2 billion program was completed in 2015; it rebuilt 12 miles of the turnpike between West Haven and Branford, including a new Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge over the Quinnipiac River and New Haven Harbor.
However, as is the case with many interstate highways built in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, it is very difficult to replace or improve them in areas where the population has grown so significantly that there is very little room for such improvements. Again, these issues are not confined to the Connecticut Turnpike.
North-south numbering for an east-west highway
The Connecticut Turnpike is approximately 128 miles long and travels in a generally west-east direction. The turnpike was originally signed as an east-west route, even after the I-95 designation was added to it between Greenwich and Waterford in the early 1960s. It is numbered I-95 for 88 miles from the New York state border in Greenwich to East Lyme; I-395 for 36 miles from East Lyme to Plainfield; and State Road 695 for four miles from Plainfield to the Rhode Island state line. As explained in numerous FreightWaves Classics articles, interstate highways that end with odd numbers generally run north-south.
Signs indicating I-95/Connecticut Turnpike as an east-west route were located in a number of places until the early 1990s; at that time any remaining east-west signs were replaced by signs indicating that the turnpike was part of a north-south interstate.
Interstate 95 in Connecticut
Interstate 95 (concurrent with the Connecticut Turnpike) enters Connecticut in Greenwich at the New York state line. Therefore, the turnpike’s first 88 miles are signed as I-95. This portion of the Connecticut Turnpike/I-95 runs through the most heavily urbanized section of Connecticut (between Greenwich and New Haven, passing through the cities of Stamford, Norwalk, Bridgeport and New Haven). The turnpike intersects several major highways on its route.
North (east) of its intersection with I-91, the turnpike continues along the Connecticut shoreline; however, traffic is generally lighter. The six-lane highway decreases to four lanes in Branford and continues until its interchange with I-395 near the East Lyme-Waterford line.
The turnpike leaves I-95 in East Lyme and continues as I-395 north toward Norwich, Jewett City and Plainfield until exit 35; there the turnpike and I-395 split. At the split, I-395 continues north toward Worcester, Massachusetts, ending at I-290 and the Massachusetts Turnpike. The Connecticut Turnpike terminates at US 6 in Killingly, which continues on towards Providence, Rhode Island. Unlike the portion of the turnpike that is signed I-95, the I-395 section has not changed a great deal over the years; it still has a grass median with a guardrail separating directions of travel.
An existing relocation of US 1 between Old Saybrook and Old Lyme was incorporated into the Connecticut Turnpike when it was built. This section of US 1 included the Raymond E. Baldwin Bridge over the Connecticut River, which opened in 1948. When the turnpike opened in 1958, US 1 was co-signed with the turnpike between the two communities.
Route 2A was built to be a bypass around Norwich. It shares its roadbed with the Connecticut Turnpike from its northern end at Route 2 to exit 9 on I-395, where it turns east.
SR 695 is the 4.49-mile unsigned portion of the Connecticut Turnpike from I-395 in Plainfield to US 6 at the Rhode Island state line in Killingly. The road is not signed as SR 695; eastbound it is signed as “To US 6 East” and westbound as “To I-395 South.” SR 695 had been planned to become part of I-84 between Hartford, Connecticut, and Providence, Rhode Island; however, that part of I-84 was not built.
The turnpike in 2022
Connecticut continues to improve the Connecticut Turnpike; however, it is difficult because of the numerous factors described above. Connecticut is not alone; highway construction and improvement are issues shared by many states. Almost all interstates in urban areas need to be improved, but that task is very expensive and very difficult for many reasons.
Moreover, as highway and bridge infrastructure continues to age, maintenance must be a greater priority for the nation and its states.
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