While the expansion of the UConn Health Center and the addition of Jackson Laboratory to its campus are huge wins for Farmington and the region, local officials are now working to mitigate any toll the projects might take on the town’s infrastructure.
The expansion, with construction scheduled to begin this fall and continue through 2018, is expected to add 680 new employees to UConn Health Center’s current 5,000. Initially, Jackson Labs will have 330 employees, with 660 employees expected at full build-out. Direct and indirect employment estimates suggest as many as 16,400 by 2037 as a result of the projects, according to the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis.
During the construction phase, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who engineered the Bioscience Connecticut deal and wooed Jackson Labs to Connecticut, said 3,000 new construction jobs will be created.
While thousands more skilled workers may mean a boon to the state and local economies, it also means additional stress on an already congested traffic system.
At peak times, that means nearly 900 additional cars traveling through the web of roads surrounding the health center, according to an Environmental Impact Evaluation conducted by UConn consultant Milone and MacBroom.
The Town of Farmington has worked proactively with the UConn group to discuss and find possible solutions to mitigate the impact of the expansion. Town staff has responded thoroughly to the Environmental Impact Evaluation identifying intersections throughout town that may be further stressed by the increased traffic from the health center. A dialogue between the town and the health center has delved into traffic patterns, queues, whether increased traffic — particularly near the East Farmington Fire station — will delay emergency response and what steps to take.
“We meet with UConn here in town about once a month or 8 weeks with their top people,” Farmington Town Council Chairman Jeff Hogan said. “We’ve had a free-form back and forth for seven months discussing what about this, what about this, and then they answer.”
The town has already reached agreements with UConn about fire, police, water, sewer and environmental concerns, with little impact expected in those areas. Farmington Public Schools has factored population increases into their enrollment projections.
“A large employer such as UCHC, especially with good accessibility off Interstate 84 and Route 4, attracts employees from a region, not just within the Town of Farmington. … The expansion of the UCHC Farmington campus is expected to cause an increase in population within Farmington and its surrounding communities as direct and indirect employment generation increases demand for housing,” the Environmental Impact Evaluation states.
But Farmington officials are still concerned that access from Interstate 84, with cars backed up for a mile on the Farmington Exit 39 off-ramp most weekday mornings, does not offer good accessibility for health center employees or local residents.
In addition to the I-84/Route 4 intersection, the town’s list of affected areas includes: South Road between Birdseye Road and Middle Road; Wolfpit Road at Route 6; Route 4 at South Road; Route 4 at Route 508; Route 4 at Talcott Notch; South Road at Two Mile Road; and South Road at Munson Road. Farmington has asked UConn to look at a systemic approach to solving the traffic situation.
UConn’s Thomas Callahan, who formerly oversaw the expansion, said in a June 18 letter to Farmington Town Manager Kathy Eagen that the projects will not extend to fixing the town’s existing traffic problems.
“The mitigation measures expected to be proposed by UCHC are being developed to optimize traffic improvements wherever possible; yet, this project will not correct the existing historic pinch points in areas such as the town center,” Callahan writes.
Farmington will absorb the direct impact of the additional traffic, with all of the health center and Jackson Lab’s employees necessarily passing through the town. Avon, too, is expecting to see more traffic.
Avon joined the discussion with the health center early on, asking the health center to expand its analysis to include the intersections of Route 10 and Old Farms Road and Route 10 and Talcott Notch Road.
“The one and only concern the town expressed was related to potential increase in traffic congestion,” said Avon Assistant Town Manager Steve Bartha. “With the Farmington ramp being the only ramp for [Interstate] 84 for the valley, some of the roads in Avon — Route 10 and Old Farms Road — are used as cut-throughs. That’s already a problem and we’re anticipating that becoming a bigger problem.”
The health center replied that the two intersections are located two to three miles from the health center campus, with a likely increase of less than 100 new vehicles per hour.
But the town of Avon also asked that three approved but unfunded state DOT projects, all centering around the Old Farms/Route 10 intersection, be considered for construction.
“The state has committed to upgrading the intersection and the bridge over Waterville Road,” Bartha said. It’s a project the town has been eyeing for 25 years, Bartha said, but hadn’t yet become a state priority. The UConn projects changed that.
“We don’t think traffic will go away, but this project will certainly relieve some of the congestion and increase flow,” he said.
West Hartford Town Manager Ron Van Winkle doesn’t expect any noticeable impact from the expansion.
“While it’s economically important, it isn’t going to make a big difference to add 400 cars to the highway system,” Van Winkle said.
UConn Health Center board submitted its plans for mitigating the traffic at the various intersections to the state Department of Transportation’s Traffic Commission on Friday. The DOT has final jurisdiction over the plans because the projects are considered “major traffic generators.”
A follow-up article on the proposed mitigation plans will be published later this week.