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.
Activists like MaryEllen Thibodeau, president of Bike Walk Connecticut, believe there are a whole bunch of potential candidates for thinning down our roadways, both at the state and local levels.
"Road diets… in my opinion are wonderful and appropriate in many more situations than most people believe," Thibodeau argues.
In New Haven, biking and pedestrian activists have been fighting for years to have the redesign of Route 34 altered to make it more people (rather than car) friendly. Tom Harned, a member of Elm City Cycling's board of directors, says the plan as it currently stands does make some improvements but really won't go far enough in accommodating bikers and walkers.
"There are some improvements," he acknowleges, "but I think it's a missed opportunity. They had a chance to make a great project and ended up with a decent one." Harned says there are places where the four-lane road will actually be widened, "spots that are actually worse… in an area that already has too many cars."
Bill Kurtz, another Elm City Cycling activist, says there are roads all over the New Haven area that could use some dramatic changes to protect bikers and walkers. He points to Kimberly Avenue between New Haven and West Haven, Forbes Avenue between East Haven and New Haven, and Whitney Avenue between Hamden and New Haven as prime examples.
A West Haven resident, Kurtz says the four-lane Kimberly Avenue involves people getting off I-95 and "speeds that are out of control" on a section where there are virtually no shoulders and no way for a biker to easily get up on the sidewalk to escape crazy drivers. "There's no place for a bicyclist to take refuge," he says.
According to state accident statistics, there were 27 fatal bicycling accidents in Connecticut between 2005 and 2010. The total number of biking-related crashes around the state during that five-year span was 4,276.
State officials point out that neither road improvements nor more careful driving on the part of motorists will solve the biking-accident problem.
Police reports indicate that something like 62 percent of all cycling-related accidents are caused or at least partly caused by errors on the part of bicyclists, and that more than 66 percent of those fatal biking crashes were blamed on the bikers themselves.
The most common errors by cyclists, according to the state statistics, include failure to grant the right of way to cars (34.6 percent of those 2005-10 bike mishaps); running red lights or stop signs (20.4 percent); and riding on the wrong side of the road against traffic (19 percent).
Nursick insists that state officials aren't trying to get into "a blame game" when it comes to biking accidents. He says state officials and their statistics "are often misinterpreted as pointing the finger too often at bicyclists."
"Everybody's screwing up," Nursick says.
Between 2005 and 2009, there were about 5,300 pedestrian-related traffic accidents in Connecticut, according to Nursick, and in about 2,500 of those cases police found the pedestrians to be at least partially at fault.
The Tri-State Transportation Campaign recently issued its own analysis of pedestrian accidents in Connecticut between 2008 and 2010. It showed that there were 121 pedestrian deaths in that time frame.
The alternative transportation activist group concluded that the most dangerous roads for walking were Route 1 (Boston Post Road), where seven pedestrian deaths occurred 2008-10, and along Route 5, which saw four walker fatalities in the same period.
Those death stats include three people killed along Route 1 in Westport and three more along Route 5 in East Hartford.
In recent years, Connecticut's legislature has passed laws that include requiring drivers to give cyclists at least three feet of room when passing, and to increase penalties for motorists who hit or seriously injure "vulnerable users" of roadways, including bikers, walkers and people working on the roads.
Nursick says lots more safety education is needed for everyone, whether they're walking, biking or driving their cars. "Everybody has been making some basic, fundamental mistakes," he says, adding that changing roadways can't solve all the problems.
But biking and pedestrian activists insist a lot more projects like the one planned for Burnside Avenue are absolutely needed.
"There are really a lot of places in Connecticut that need these kinds of safety improvements," says Higashide. "Hopefully, this is just the beginning."
And hopefully we can figure out a way to put other dangerous Connecticut roads on "diets" before they consume too many more lives.