Before the Unionville Traffic Committee was formed last August, the center’s traffic problem was sitting on Tom Borden’s desk at the state Department of Transportation. And, as the subject of numerous complaints from those who live in and drive through Unionville, it had been on the DOT’s to-do list for years.
“It was a lucky coincidence. The application was assigned to go forward through the process and it was just by good fortune that the town had formed a committee,” Borden said.
The committee was formed by the Town Council and charged with finding solutions and soliciting help from the public; Borden joined its efforts. Unionville Village Improvement Association, Unionville Business Cooperative, the Town Council and residents all were given representation on the committee.
The first step was listening. The committee held charettes to discuss the problems and get suggestions on how to fix them. They came away with more than 300 solutions, which were pared down, studied and suggested to the council in three parts: short-term, midterm and long-term solutions. Several short-term solutions have already been implemented.
The committee members all came with ideas they favored. One was sure a rotary at the five-way intersection was the answer, one was convinced just widening South Main Street in front of Liquor Square would fix traffic. One member argued that he could fix all the problems with a can of paint by just moving the lane lines.
Borden said he mainly came to listen. He started watching the traffic, counting cars and observing where they went.
“I wasn’t aware of the difficulty, for instance, of vehicles getting out of Railroad Avenue. If you don’t do it, you don’t realize it but even if you go into the gas station or Parson’s, those businesses are being affected. Once they get a green phase, they’re in competition with the heavy volume of traffic coming out of New Britain Avenue. Unless you’re making a right, you’ve got no chance.”
He was also surprised to see how the misalignment of Mill Street and the Riversedge Plaza driveway caused problems. That, he said, is due to piecemeal development.
“Traffic is not lined up. Developers come in and the town fathers think this is going to lower our tax rates and overlook what’s going to happen with traffic – like with the new Stop & Shop that’s there,” Borden said.
But in looking at all the problems, one thing stood out.
“Once we started getting that kind of information, we realized that the original application really had a red herring in it that had to do with the volume of left-turning vehicles going southbound onto New Britain Avenue,” he said. “It didn’t matter what we did; that factor was going to come in as a breakdown. You’d still see left-turning vehicles blocking up that intersection and backing up into the five-way intersection.”
The committee, with Borden, came up with the proposal to stretch the distance between the bridge and the New Britain Avenue intersection by rerouting it down Wall Street and Burnham Avenue. It would cost $10 million in state and federal money and would begin in 3-5 years. Several business and homes would be demolished. The Town Council voted Nov. 15 4-3 in support of the plan.
In response, several residents and business owners in the area that would be affected began , a crusade to stop the traffic project. They are working to gather 1,700 signatures by Monday on a petition that asks to put the issue to a town vote.
Here Tom Borden addresses some questions on the project:
Many people say the bridge is the problem. How does this plan address that?
There are other sections of Route 177 that are two lanes and in those areas that are just two lanes but are on a long section of roadway with no intersections, there’s no problem with the flow of traffic.
There is nothing wrong with the bridge — it’s a two-lane section of the road. The problem is that the bridge is close to intersections. It’s the proximity to those intersections that make it an issue.
Southbound you have a roadway, New Britain Avenue, which is well traveled and traffic volumes are significant. As the town has developed, more businesses, more residences, more municipal buildings have been built along New Britain Avenue …all that generates into traffic needing to cross the river and making a left onto New Britain Avenue, so those southbound left-turning vehicles queue up and seal off that flow of southbound traffic. By moving the intersection further south, we have space to store those left-turning vehicles so it no longer affects flow of through vehicles and the bridge becomes more like a regular two-lane section of roadway.
When southbound left-turning vehicles are moving left onto New Britain Avenue, we would have an exclusive right-turn lane on New Britain Avenue. There’s a heavy right turn out of New Britain Avenue, so those cars would be able to be processed when southbound vehicles are going. Northbound vehicles will be allotted more time so it will improve the flow northbound [into Unionville center], too. We’re making the New Britain Avenue leg of this intersection more effective.
It also kind of separates this intersection [New Britain Avenue] from the Mill Street intersection (they are now timed together and would no longer be). It should provide better progression through here. You’ll no longer have backups going southbound on Route 177 that will be affecting movement of vehicles on Farmington Avenue of Main Street.
But Railroad Avenue will still have a light in the same spot.
The problem is not there because you have no left-turning vehicles to stop the flow of traffic. It will be interrupted during the red phase to allow right-turning vehicles to get out without a problem but that doesn’t delay traffic enough to cause the consequences that are there today.
Will the plan fix traffic in Unionville?
Will we not have congestion? The answer is no. We will have it. But I believe in a village like this, people don’t mind a certain degree of congestion. What’s very difficult is when movement of vehicles breaks down and they get a green phase but can’t move because there’s no space to move into. People feel ‘I’m just stuck’ — that’s what happening today.
We’ve tried to come up with something that will get rid of that in a reasonable period of time. It’s probably five years before construction were to start.
How do we know this will work?
At a meeting I was at it was a little frustrating. People were saying ‘I don’t believe this will work, I just don’t believe it.’ As an engineer when we design a bridge, it’s not like we believe it’s going to work. We’re not in the faith business.
Will the state replace the Unionville bridge?
For the next 20 years it’s a pretty safe assumption that the bridge is going to stay there. What this plan allows for is that the bridge can become its own conversation. It will stay or be replaced based on its own merits. It won’t be because there was traffic congestion caused because the bridge is only two lanes. That will be a moot point going forward…
Bridge replacement is very expensive. This one is over 200 feet long and would be probably in the $20-35 million range to replace — and it wouldn’t be an easy construction thing to do.
Does town support determine if a project will be done?
We do roadway improvements, bridge replacements throughout the state and it’s a fact of life that to do something and build something, that process is an extended period of time. Local elections are typically every two years. So one doesn’t necessarily drive the other. There has to be some kind of continuity. We are hoping for support on the municipal side but there have been incidences in the past when a town fully supported an improvement but then did not. …we have a process that allows for input throughout so ultimately, if a municipality withdrew support, it is very unlikely that we would wind up building something. But it’s also been the case at times that although there is a vocal minority [opposed], there is majority support for an improvement that would help the region, the town as a whole.
Where is the plan in the process?
There has already been some discussion about a funding plan, which we need to establish, and at this point we have $2.6 million allocated through CROG [Capitol Area Region of Governments]. The town has requested additional funds from CROG under the same funding sources and we’re in the process of identifying other potential funding sources we could tap into… we are at the very beginning phase.
Is this project paid for by my taxes even if it’s not funded by the town?
One thing discussed at the meeting was how peoples’ taxes are going toward this. The dollars coming from the feds is generated from fees on fuel. Those fees basically fund the transportation trust fund and there will be a federal bill – normally six-year bills – they fund projects throughout the country and to various degrees, the state of Connecticut. We’re one of the smallest states in the union and we don’t get a whole lot of funding but our infrastructure is one of the oldest in the country… what federal funds we get, the state matches. We put up our matching funds so we’re eligible to get these funds.
These federal gas fees are already taken off the top when you buy your gas and there’s also a state fee associated with fuel. That’s primarily where these taxes are coming from.
It’s important not to do something frivolous just because you have the funds but if you have needs - qualify of life needs as noted in the last town survey [in which residents cited traffic as their second largest concern] – that’s not to be ignored.
Is there room for the state to work with impacted property owners?
This committee and the Town have been very concerned and sensitive to what this section of the village would look like. Should this ever go forward, they are looking to maximize the benefits of what could happen in a time like this. There are lots of possibilities but they haven't been discussed yet.
The florist shop driveway has access to Burnahm Avenue. We could talk to the business owners to see if it makes sense to provide access so the florist customers could go through that way – maybe he wouldn’t be so negatively affected. It may be easier to get in and out of traffic afterwards. And, the salon — it's not a foregone conculsion that LA Styles has to be taken in total.
There are possibilities out there for people like this. The package store owner, I'm told, understood when he bought it that the building would be affected by an improvement plan but for him, too, there’s an opportunity going forward to have this village improvement plan work with him to see where he could put a new building. Maybe we could make it so it’s a little bit more village-like. That process hasn’t even begun.
I think there are some compelling reasons for doing [the project] and in the end the potential for having something better is here.
Some answers were edited for length.