“Right here tens of thousands of people are driving across the Gold Star bridge every day to get to their jobs, to school, to everything that matters in their lives,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said at the January 2023 press conference in which he spoke about why the USDOT awarded $158.2 million through the Bridge Investment Program for repairs.
On a Friday in April, a Toyota Avalon got a flat and its driver reportedly lost control; the driver of a Kenworth T300 collided with the car, and the result was fatal for him as the truck rolled over, spilling its 2,200 gallons of home heating oil and igniting. Given the intensity of the blaze, both sides of the bridge were initially closed while it was inspected for structural damage. Later that day, one side of the bridge reopened, and by Monday, the other was operating more-or-less as normal, aside from one small part: the sidewalk.
Without this connection between New London and Groton, the bridge closure for motorists amounts to a 17-mile detour, so says a CTDOT press release. As is typical of detours that impact only those who are walking or cycling, the response was a shrug.
While people will spar over parking spaces to avoid walking an extra 30 seconds, somehow, pedestrians and cyclists were expected to . . . I don’t know what. The water taxi was not operating, so the obvious Plan B was out. Bus service in this area is infrequent. Rideshare or taxi service is prohibitively expensive for many. Were pedestrians expected to walk 17 miles?
That would already be absurd, but the truth is that the detour for pedestrians and cyclists is even more than that, as the nearest alternative – the Thames River Bridge – has no pedestrian access. Not that it matters. To reach it, one would be on roadways without sidewalks or any safe place for humans to walk next to metal boxes moving at killing speeds. If the streets to get to the next crossing were even an option, it would be a 24-mile detour, and at that point, pedestrians and cyclists would not even be crossing the Thames River, but the Yantic and Shetucket Rivers before convergence in Norwich.
Days after the deadly crash, after vehicular lanes reopened, a nuance-less news story scolded people for walking and cycling the 6,000 ft Gold Star Memorial Bridge. The article did not talk about the lack of other options.
For three solid weeks, pedestrians and cyclists – who also depended on this bridge for jobs, school, and everything that matters – were denied access to those things and given no viable alternatives.
Could one of its 11 automobile lanes have been sacrificed and separated with jersey barriers so that everyone could continue to participate in society? CTDOT Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto said the idea had been discussed on the night of the fatal crash, but he was told that “dead weight would critically destabilize the bridge.” That should give people something to think about next time they are stalled on a bridge in a traffic jam. Could lighter-weight barriers, like massive traffic barrels, in conjunction with reduced speed on the bridge, have been an option?
According to Eucalitto, the CTDOT contacted the Southeast Area Transit District (SEAT) the night of the crash to explore shuttle service, but “CTDOT and CTtransit have no legal right to operate in that territory because there is a statutorily-established local transit district.”
Will a small transit district have the staffing and other resources to pivot? What happens when only unionized workers are allowed behind the wheel? The answer is that everyone waits.
“After some days,” how many, Eucalitto did not specify, SEAT told CTDOT that they “did not have enough drivers and would not provide service.”
It took 23 days for shuttle bus service to be announced. Don’t clap yet. The service is offered daily, 6 AM until 5 PM, which means passengers better have punched out and made it to the shuttle stop before most end their work day.
The shuttle service happening now is because, as Eucalitto put it, CTDOT had to “get creative and use emergency contracting powers to procure a private provider.”
More concerning than cutting off all Connecticut residents who walk and cycle from employment, family, and other commitments, is what this fiasco says about emergency preparedness in southeastern Connecticut. What does this slow response indicate for those who may need to evacuate from the shoreline on short notice? What does this mean if there is an issue at the Millstone Nuclear Power Station, and an evacuation is needed on even shorter notice?
Millstone’s emergency document mentions buses exactly once, and in relation to Fishers Island. How do those anywhere else in the 10-mile Millstone Station Emergency Planning Zones evacuate without a personal car? In the 18 years since Hurricane Katrina we have seemingly learned nothing.
Groton’s municipal website announces in large, bold, all caps: “FAILING TO PLAN IS PLANNING TO FAIL.”