By Gretchen Webster
WESTPORT — Onerous traffic on Post Road East, often leaving drivers knotted in frustration, has grown even more exasperating because of construction along the state-maintained corridor in recent months.
Safety upgrades for a local stretch of Route 1, as the street is also known, have been on the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s project schedule for almost 20 years, according to town Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich. Funding for the long-awaited plans was released by the state Bond Commission in the spring of 2022.
Two main elements of the project are traffic and safety improvements at Post Road East’s intersection with Roseville and Hillspoint roads, and its intersection with two misaligned portions of Bulkley Road, Ratkiewich said.
A third part addresses the stretch of road intersecting with the driveway at 605 Post Road, the commercial complex where Fresh Market is located. That was first planned when the supermarket was a Grand Union grocery store, he said.
A long time coming
“The project has been in the works for decades — and morphed many times since it was first proposed,” the DPW said. “In 2008, when I became town engineer, it had already been underway for six years.”
The extremely long wait for a state highway project to begin “speaks to the nature of the DOT and its federal funding. It takes quite a bit of bureaucracy to get projects off the shelf,” he said. “Designing a project is very complicated. They have to go through a process approved by the federal highway administration … 10 years before construction starts is not out of the ordinary at all.”
State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, who has served on the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee, agreed. He called the state’s design process for road upgrades, “very deliberate. They have to do environmental studies … every intersection is unique with its own issues,” he said. “The solutions are not straightforward.”
State road projects also have been exceptionally slow to complete because of a shortage of laborers in the last few years, Steinberg said.
“They are so shorthanded. Connecticut is competing with every other state,” he said. “It has only complicated what it takes to complete a project.”
A long time to complete
No matter how long the planning process for the three-part project took for the construction phase to begin, Ratkiewich is confident work will be finished close to the scheduled date, which is still nearly two years away, in April 2025, according to the DOT website.
It may take a long time to get actual work on a road improvement project started, Ratkiewich said, “but I’ve never seen a project stopped that’s gone to construction.”
Construction on the Post Road East project officially started in March of this year, and was awarded to Guerrera Construction Co. of Oxford at a cost of $12,992,995.50, according to the DOT.
The work at the three intersections will add left-hand turning lanes and widen travel lanes, and traffic signals will be upgraded. New sidewalks will also be built along some stretches of the road where none currently exist, and new drainage structures will be added.
Local input made a difference
Although the project is paid for and carried out by the state, Ratkiewich said, the DOT consulted with Westport officials on which intersections were a high priority for upgrades, he said. He described Westport’s role as a stakeholder in the project with town DPW officials working as a liaison between local residents and commercial property owners, and the DOT.
“Sometimes property owners are more comfortable with the town than working with the state,” he said.
The DPW’s feedback to the state helped preserve most of the trees in front of the Stop & Shop supermarket, Ratkiewich said, and trees in front of Sakura restaurant, at the corner of Hillspoint Road, will be trimmed, not removed, which had been a concern of some residents and the town’s Tree Board. Utility wires will be strung above the trees. “They aren’t going to take any of the trees out,” he said.
Traffic trials and tribulations
Since considerable time remains before the project is complete, drivers will have to endure long lines of slow-moving traffic through work zones for months to come.
One of many local drivers frustrated by the regular traffic tie-up is Judith Holod, who complained at a recent Board of Selectwomen’s meeting that it took her far too long to reach Town Hall that morning. “It was a 10-minute ride that took us a half-hour,” she said.
Holod, commenting after the meeting, was particularly annoyed that at the Hillspoint/Roseville intersection with Post Road East, no police officer was directing traffic despite the challenging traffic patterns created by construction.
“Everything merges into one line right at Hillspoint and Route 1 — there’s police there — but there’s no one standing there and directing traffic,” she said. “People are coming from Long Lots and going through the 877 Post Road parking lot and the pizza parking lot … just to save a minute.”
And when delays caused by accidents or construction on Interstate 95 send more traffic pouring onto Westport’s stretch of the Post Road, it causes intolerable driving conditions, she added. “It’s a crazy situation.”
Merchants also have been getting complaints.
The parking lot in front of 1803-1807 Post Road East was blocked by construction cones for several months, forcing customers to park farther down the road, according to Emmanuel Aggrey, manager of Mattress Firm, 1805 Post Road East.
“This has been going on for months,” he said. “It was done just two days ago,” but the parking area will likely be closed again when work crews return to re-stripe the parking area or make other final adjustments.
At Stanton Miles, sales and repair shop for vacuum cleaners, owner Michael Roland said customers have complained about having to park down the street and walk to his store. Since the service the store offers is unique, his customers are coming in despite the aggravations, he said. “But if we were a restaurant or some other type of store, they would just pick a different restaurant,” instead of trying to navigate the construction areas, he said.
Meanwhile, the DOT’s contractor is doing some work at night, when possible, although the bulk will take place during daytime, Ratkiewich said.
Data collected about accidents and where they most often occur on Post Road East determined where work is being done, he said, with the goal of improving safety when the project is complete.
“It’s primarily a traffic safety improvement project — we’re all about traffic and safety these days,” he said.
Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.