Connecticut transportation officials are putting a lethal three-mile stretch of Route 44 (aka Burnside Avenue) in East Hartford on a radical "road diet" before it kills again.
One state Department of Transportation official calls it a "groundbreaking" move — the first time anyone can recall the agency drastically narrowing a state highway strictly to protect bikers and pedestrians. Cycling activists say there are plenty of other potential dangerous candidates for similar roadway diets in Connecticut.
The problem is that it took three deaths to get something done about that hazardous highway in East Hartford:
May 26, 2010: Manuel Herrera is struck and killed while riding his bicycle on Burnside Avenue.
Sept 10, 2011: William Laramie dies biking along the same section of four-lane road when a drunk driver runs him over.
Nov. 16, 2011: Daniel Schultz is fatally injured by an SUV as he pedals down Burnside not far from where the two earlier deaths occurred.
Those fatal accidents have been marked on Burnside Avenue by a "ghost bike" chained to a telephone poll, one of the eerie, white-painted bicycle frames that activists around the state have been using to mark the places where cyclists have been killed.
Three dead in 18 months. In the six years before that, state records show there were 12 non-fatal accidents involving bikes along that same portion of dangerous pavement.
The DOT's plan is to dramatically narrow the roadway, from two lanes in each direction down to a single motor vehicle lane either way. Marked bike lanes will be put in, additional parking provided along the route and special pedestrian "peninsulas" at key crossing points will be provided to reduce the distance you have to walk to cross the route.
The project will cost an estimated $1.1 million and is expected to be started and completed (including a resurfacing of the roadway) during next year's summer construction season.
One of the oddest elements of this bicycle/pedestrian safety move is that it may only be possible because of Connecticut's loss of industrial employment. The area has lost thousands of jobs in recent decades, particularly from the nearby Pratt & Whitney factory, and that has meant a dramatic cut in the number of cars using that portion of Burnside Avenue.
Less motor vehicle traffic means that thinning down the auto-travel lanes won't produce major jams, according to DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick. "The traffic volume no longer warrants two lanes in each direction," he says.
With fewer cars and trucks rumbling along Burnside Avenue, speeds have apparently increased, making the road much more hazardous for bikers and walkers.
The traffic volume issue explains why state officials are reluctant to try similar moves on sections of car-congested (and often pedestrian/cyclist- dangerous) Route 1 along Connecticut's densely populated coastline corridor. "Trying something like this on Route 1 would be a traffic nightmare," Nursick points out.
Nursick calls the planned Burnside Avenue changes a "groundbreaking move here by DOT."
"We have done road diets in the past," Nursick explains, citing as one example a project in the New London region about a decade ago. But he says that work was done for motor vehicle traffic safety reasons, not to protect cyclists and pedestrians, which is the basic reason for the Burnside Avenue project.
"It sounds exciting," Steven Higashide, a spokesman for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, says of the DOT's plans for the road in East Hartford. "It sounds like exactly the kind of improvements envisioned by Connecticut's Complete Streets Law that was passed in 2009," he adds.
That law requires that "accommodations for all users shall be a routine part of the planning, design, construction and operating activities" of all state highways, and provides that at least 1 percent of all transportation funding be put toward pedestrian and bicycle-friendly stuff.
"I think we are seeing a changing mentality at the Connecticut DOT under this administration," Higashide says, echoing the sentiments of many biking activists in this state. (To be fair, it wasn't Gov. Dannel Malloy who signed that Complete Streets legislation into law but his predecessor,M. Jodi Rell.)
Nursick says that, "Right now, there's really nothing else on the radar screen" for more road diets around the state.