The Wesleyan Argus–February 24, 2020
The Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) is set to begin a $46 million construction project on Arrigoni Bridge and St. John’s Square. Construction on the bridge, which passes over the Connecticut River and connects Middletown and Portland, will focus on the bridge’s approach spans. At St. John’s Square, construction will include turn lanes and intersection realignment.
The contract for the construction was awarded to Mohawk Northeast, Inc., a Connecticut-based construction company. Construction is scheduled to be completed on Feb. 25, 2022. A public meeting on the project led by the DOT Office of Construction will be held at 6:30 p.m. on March 10 at MacDonough School (66 Spring St). DOT project designers and Middletown elected officials are expected to attend.
Though construction on Arrigoni Bridge and at St. John’s Square were originally designed as two different projects, the DOT grouped the two into one contract, according to St. John’s Square Project Engineer Stephen Hall.
“The decision was made to bid them as one contract to ensure there were no conflicts during construction,” Stephen Hall wrote in an email to The Argus.
The DOT press release on the project states that construction will begin on or around Feb. 27, but actual work on Arrigoni Bridge will not begin for one to two months, according to Arrigoni Bridge Project Engineer Mike Bugbee. Feb. 27 is the DOT’s “Notice to Proceed” date for the project, marking the start of the contractor’s allotted time for construction.
“Shovels in the ground, working, will probably be sometime in April,” Bugbee said. “With a project like this, there’s a lot of preliminary work that has to get done, and submittals, and a lot of administrative stuff, too, has to happen before the contractor actually gets out there and starts working.”
The expected impacts of construction on Middletown residents and commuters passing through construction sites are not entirely clear, but times and locations of planned lane closures can be found in the DOT press release.
“The construction sequencing has been designed to minimize the impacts to residents and commuters,” Stephen Hall wrote. “There will however be times where traffic is limited to one way in each direction.”
Middletown Mayor Ben Florsheim ’14 explained that the planned improvements to Arrigoni Bridge, which opened in 1938, have been in the making for a long time.
“It’s an aging bridge, we have a lot of aging infrastructure in the state that requires a lot of maintenance,” Florsheim said. “Eventually things are going to have to be replaced. The maintenance is something that’s been known about for a long time.”
Former chair and founding member of the city’s Complete Streets Committee and Portland resident John Hall regularly drives across the bridge and agrees that construction on Arrigoni is long-awaited.
“That’s work that needs to be done,” John Hall said. “It’s a very old bridge, the steel has rusted away in some places, and it just needs work.”
State Senator and former Wesleyan student Matt Lesser (D-9), whose district includes Middletown, believes that the changes to Arrigoni Bridge, like the protective fences that will be put into place on both the approach and main spans of the bridge, will make the city safer.
“Certainly there are things that are part of the plan that I think are going to be incredibly important for Middletown, including safety on the bridge,” Lesser said. “We’ve had some tragedies recently involving the bridge, and the installation of suicide barriers, for example, is an important component that will ensure that people in our community are safe.”
While there is a consensus that the construction on Arrigoni Bridge is necessary, the St. John’s Square project has raised questions from government officials, as some believe that the DOT has not released sufficient information about the project to the public.
“We share [the DOT’s] priority and Portland’s priority in making sure that the bridge is safe; we’re all on the same page in that respect,” Florsheim said. “Where we want to make sure that we’re on the same page with our partners at the state is making sure that these modifications to traffic patterns in the North End are going to be to the benefit—not just to people who are driving through the North End, to get from one place to the other, but also the residents and the businesses who are there 24/7.”
Lesser also emphasized the importance of hearing from Middletown residents about changes to St. John’s Square and future work on Route 9.
“There’s some specific issues that DOT is proposing related less to the Arrigoni Bridge and more to some of the changes that they’re hoping to do down the road regarding Route 9 that I have some questions about,” Lesser said. “I think it’s important to get full community input on those.”
Planning & Zoning Commission Chair Stephen Devoto, who plans to attend the DOT’s public meeting, believes that details of construction work have not been made clear to residents of Middletown.
“It is troubling that the plans haven’t been well publicized in the city, and there hasn’t been an opportunity so far for public feedback on exactly what their plans are and what the impacts will be on the city, and in particular on that neighborhood,” Devoto said.
Devoto pointed to the lack of information provided to Middletown government commissions and organizations about the projects to highlight the lack of information from the DOT.
“Planning & Zoning has not been informed in any way,” Devoto said. “Public Works was not informed, the Chamber of Commerce was not informed—so the impact on residents, on pedestrians, and even impacts on businesses—we don’t know what they’re going to be, but there will be short-term, very serious impacts on businesses…and then the long-term impact on pedestrian and bicycle modes of transportation are just not clear, because we haven’t seen the plans.”
Going forward, a priority for Lesser is ensuring that Middletown community members are informed about plans from the DOT.
“DOT is certainly a big and robust bureaucracy, and they do things a certain way,” Lesser said. “I’m doing everything in my power to make sure we have open lines of communication between city leaders and DOT…. I know it was important to Mayor Florsheim—and it’s important to me—that it’s not just city leaders who are in the loop, but also community members as well, and that’s why we thought it was critical that DOT hold a forum before the new project starts, to let people know what’s happening as well as address some potential touch points that may be of particular concern.”
Florsheim echoed the importance of making sure residents are aware of what changes will be happening to their neighborhoods.
“Once we know, we want to make sure that the public knows too, and that the public has an opportunity to have their questions answered, that they have an opportunity to have their voices heard with what they’re paying for, with what this is gonna do to their neighborhood,” Florsheim said. “After a little bit of back and forth, we are grateful that DOT has agreed to come and talk about it.”
Florsheim said that he has been meeting with the DOT and Middletown’s state legislative delegation to get all parties on the same page in terms of construction project goals, but he has faced some communication challenges along the way.
“There’s just been a little bit of difficulty making sure that DOT is actually communicating with us about getting that information out within our city government,” Florsheim said. “We want to make sure that whatever the state is doing is done in concert with what we think is best for the city and best for the state’s long term interests.”
Devoto thinks the lack of information from the DOT on this project is indicative of a prolonged problem of inadequate communication between the state and the city.
“The residents of the city, for a long time…have not been informed about state construction projects done by the DOT,” Devoto said. “Whether that is a result of the DOT not communicating with the mayor, or the Mayor’s Office not sharing information with the residents has never been clear, and I think there needs to be better communication from the DOT, both to the mayor and then through the mayor to the residents.”
Devoto referred to the construction of bump-outs (also known as sidewalk extensions) on Main Street last year as an example of the lack of clear dialogue between the DOT and the city.
“Their communication has been appalling,” Devoto said. “The bump-outs that were constructed on Main Street about a year ago, nobody knew they were coming, not even the businesses right where the bump-outs were happening until they literally had the jackhammers in the cement. So it’s really very poor communication from the state Department of Transportation to the city.”
John Hall voiced similar concerns about the DOT’s outreach to the Middletown community.
“I think the DOT’s outreach to the community is always kind of clumsy, and they don’t really try real hard to reach members of the community, especially those people who live right at that location,” he said. “They put out press releases, and they make announcements that they’re going to have a meeting to discuss the changes, but they don’t really do a very good job of reaching out to the local residents who are most affected to try to build some kind of dialogue.”
He also believes the DOT could have avoided controversy with its past proposals if the department had listened to residents’ thoughts.
“I think some of this trouble and controversy might’ve been avoided if they had engaged in dialogue with the community before they sprang these plans and drawings and artists renderings and so on on the public,” John Hall said. “I think there might be a better way for these plans to evolve.”
Florsheim is also concerned about the impacts of the DOT’s future plans for Route 9 on the North End and the neighborhood’s residents.
“One of the concerns with some of the DOT’s vision…for their larger, long-term vision for changes that they want to make to Route 9, to the highway here, is that we worry about dumping and re-routing traffic through a relatively low-income, high-density neighborhood with an elementary school that has the highest proportion of students who walk to school, with narrow streets that have stop signs but don’t have a lot of traffic signals that people often times speed through or ignore,” Florsheim said. “There’s already a lot of traffic challenges in that neighborhood; we want to make sure that we’re making them better and not worse with the infrastructure changes that we’re making.”
Ultimately, Florsheim believes better communication between the city and the DOT is achievable.
“We really want to be partners to the state and I know that the state wants to be partners to us,” Florsheim said. “We just have to make sure that we’re talking to get to the outcome that we want…. The more that we can actually approach issues as if we’re all in this together, the better we’re going to do.”
John Hall thinks the city’s struggle to reach agreements with the DOT may be a result of the department’s specifications for projects.
“The Connecticut Department of Transportation seems very rigid in what they will accept as a reasonable solution…and it really prevents, I think, it prevents some solutions from being implemented because they don’t meet their engineering guidelines, and I think other states are more flexible in these guidelines,” he said. “DOT is a very powerful and very rigid entity, and I wish they would sometimes show more flexibility in what they consider to be a workable solution.”
Devoto believes the city needs to know that the DOT is considering its projects’ impacts on residents.
“I’m very concerned about the state’s moving forward with a plan for Route 9 that does not have the best interests of our city in mind,” Devoto said. “So the two plans that have been put forward by the DOT were both roundly condemned by city residents, and it’s not clear—I think the city needs to have confidence that the DOT is taking the interests of Middletown to heart and not going to simply do something without consulting the city.”
This project has also raised questions about improvements to pedestrian infrastructure and mass transit access in Middletown, which both Lesser and Florsheim hope to see in the city soon.
“From my perspective, DOT can and should be doing a whole lot of other stuff other than just highway projects,” Lesser said. “Yes, I think highway projects are important—I drive to work every day—but I think if we’re gonna jumpstart our economy, we’ve got to make sure that Middletown is accessible by bus and rail and bike, and pedestrian improvements as well.”
Florsheim emphasized the importance of non-automobile infrastructure in the city’s future.
“If we are thinking about transportation infrastructure without taking into consideration things like pedestrian access and cyclist access when we know those things are incredibly important for economic development, and incredibly important for creating sustainable, affordable neighborhoods, then that’s being penny wise and pound foolish,” Florsheim said. “Those are the things that the state ought to be thinking about, if the state’s gonna have a bright future. It’s the things that we are thinking about in Middletown because we know that they are important to our future.”
Complete Streets Committee member and Middletown resident Beth Emery believes this construction project can have positive impacts for pedestrians and cyclists depending on whether or not the DOT’s full plans have those groups in mind.
“If they’ve done it the right way, it’ll have a positive impact because it will be safer,” Emery said. “There’s many people who don’t have a car for one reason or another and their safety should come first. That should be the first priority in how they’re building this out.”
Emery plans to attend the public meeting on the project and intends to ask how much consideration the DOT had for pedestrian and cycling infrastructure when planning the project.
“I’m questioning how much they took into consideration the bicycle access there, and what is the priority: the safety of the pedestrians and bicyclists, or the movement of vehicular traffic?” Emery said. “Have all the right questions been asked, and is this project going to make it better for pedestrians and bicyclists or is this project going to make things less safe?”
For Florsheim, the DOT’s plans for this project are not clear on what improvements, if any, would be made for pedestrian access in Middletown.
“There’s certainly not a lot of specifics in those plans for how it would help pedestrians and cyclists and people other than drivers,” Florsheim said. “The exception, I suppose, is that they’re installing, just as they have on the southern side of Main Street, these sidewalk bump-outs that reduce the crossing time for pedestrians. And that’s not a bad thing, but that doesn’t really meaningfully change somebody’s ability to walk to or from work, or walk to or from home if they live in that neighborhood.”
Moving forward, Florsheim hopes to work with the state in making improvements to transportation infrastructure and more for both Middletown and the state as a whole.
“I think generally what is good for downtown Middletown is good for the state of Connecticut,” Florsheim said. “I think that downtown Middletown, it’s a growing, vibrant place that really is unique in Connecticut in a lot of ways, and we want that to be something that helps the state reach its goals as well. And sometimes you have to think bigger than road construction to make sure that that is being met.”