In Salem, Connecticut, there’s a highway that stops in the middle of nowhere. If you’ve ever driven from the Hartford area to the beaches of southeastern Connecticut or Rhode Island, you know the one I mean. Route 11 is a fantastic, traffic-free, four-lane divided highway right up until the moment the unwary driver is spit out down an exit ramp and onto narrow, dangerous, two-lane Route 85. It’s been like this for forty years.
The legislature is once again taking a stab at finishing the impossible road, and re-igniting controversy over tolls in the process. I have to give them high marks for persistence. Governors, legislators and members of Congress have repeatedly banged their heads against Route 11 for decades, to the point where the exhumation of the highway’s corpse by way of some new plan or other has become a perennial tradition. Last year a bill to put tolls on Route 11 to fund its completion was passed by the House only to die in the Senate. It’s back again this year, passed recently by the Finance, Revenue and Bonding committee, though whether there’s enough votes or time for it to reach the governor’s desk is anyone’s guess.
Route 11 is one of these things that looks like an easy fix. We know exactly what we need to do: finish the road. Right? It all seems so simple. The cuts in the mountain are already there. Get out the steamroller, evict a few hapless locals from their homes, grab some asphalt, and in a couple of years we’ll be able to shave a full 10 minutes off our drive to New London. Progress!
Except it’s not that simple, and it hasn’t been since the heyday of run-amok highway planners back in the 1960s and early ‘70s. Funding is hard to get and the review process is excruciating, meaning projects can languish in limbo for decades. Finishing a major transportation project requires an enormous act of political will at the local, state and federal levels. The tolls may, if they succeed, solve some of the funding problems — though as Rep. David Scribner, R-Brookfield, suggested, a high pricetag could mean the tolls don’t pay off for decades.
All of this begs the question of whether we’re doing the right thing at all. Does a big rural highway project like this still make sense? Is it environmentally sound? What will happen when we re-introduce tolls to the state after so long? Does Connecticut actually need this road? There are other ways to get to New London, after all. Nothing ever is as easy as it seems.
Route 11 is just a minor blip on the legislature’s radar this session, dwarfed by bigger fish like liquor sales on Sunday and education reform. The latter seemed like it might be a relatively straightforward thing, at first, too. Reform tenure to get rid of bad teachers and allow the state to take over failing schools in order to turn them around: not easy, but straightforward. Of course, a more thorough analysis has shown it to be anything but, and the bill has subsequently been dragged down by its own complexities and the competing interests of various stakeholders. At this point it’s barely reform at all. Gov. Malloy has threatened to veto the bill as is, and it’s hard to blame him. Closed-door negotiations are ongoing, but whether anything will be agreed upon before the session ends is, again, anyone’s guess.
Like Route 11, at some point we need to seriously ask ourselves if this kind of education reform is the right way to go. Do the government’s turnaround models produce good schools and students who can achieve? Do we want to get bogged down in this endless debate over standardized tests, tenure and teacher evaluation? Will any of these actually fix anything, or will we just wind up at a dead-end, stuck in the middle of nowhere, a couple of years from now? In other states where these reforms are being implemented, people are starting to ask themselves the same questions.
There’s no doubt that we need some kind of education reform, and we need it desperately. But maybe this road isn’t the one we want to build after all. Should we be focusing instead on fundamental skills like reading and math, smaller schools, smaller class sizes and more individual help for students? Should we be looking at social and environmental factors? Before the governor, the legislature and the teachers’ unions drag this fight out into the summer, they should consider whether there is something better they can achieve instead. Maybe, just as there is for the phantom unfinished section of Route 11, there’s another, less direct but ultimately more worthwhile way to get where we want to be.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CT Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.