Traffic congestion choking region
A new report prepared by the region's transportation planning agency assessing rush-hour backups indicates that even in a sluggish economy, traffic has done little to ease bottlenecks on the region's major state highways.
Average speeds and trip time are the focus of the South Western Regional Planning Agency's 2011 Travel Time Monitoring Program, a semi-annual report identifying the worst bottlenecks on Interstate 95, the Merritt Parkway and Route 7.
"It shows that congestion continues to be a major quality-of-life issue," said William Palmquist, the geographical information system analyst for SWRPA.
To gather data, employees of the agency drove cars carrying a geographic positioning system during commuting trips from April through June, traveling south from 7 to 9 a.m. and north from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The devices collected information on speed, distance traveled and trip time.
Overall, morning commuters on Interstate 95 had an average travel speed of 33 mph, 2 mph slower than recorded in 2009, according to the report.
Merritt Parkway commuters during the same 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. period had an average travel speed of 37 mph compared with 34 mph in the 2009 version of the report.
During the morning rush on Interstate 95 southbound, the Route 8 Interchange in Bridgeport between exits 27 and 23 and the stretch from exits 16 to 14 in Norwalk near the Route 7 connector were identified as especially backed up, with travel speeds averaging less than 20 mph.
Travelers heading south between exits 8 through 6 on I-95, through Stamford's central business district, plodded at speeds of 30 mph or less, according to the report.
During the 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. period on Interstate 95, bumper-to-bumper traffic was found to stretch from exits 3 and 4 in eastern Greenwich through Stamford's central business district north to the Route 7 interchange near exits 15 and 16, with speeds less than 20 mph between exits 9 and 14, according to the report.
On the Merritt Parkway southbound during the morning rush, the stretch between exits 40 through 39 near the Route 7 northbound connector and exits 38 through 36 in New Canaan also had travel speeds averaging less than 20 mph.
At night, the Merritt's average speed was 40 mph, with slower stretches between exits 40-42 in Westport and between exits 47 and 53, according to the report.
A roadway resurfacing project on the Merritt Parkway between Fairfield and Trumbull may have impacted trip times during the study, Palmquist said.
"From year to year you don't see a huge change in travel speeds, but seeing the actual speed makes it more digestible for people," Palmquist said.
Car runs along a 19.6-mile stretch of Route 7 between Danbury and Norwalk during the morning period recorded an average speed of 27 mph, 2 mph slower than in 2009, with an average trip length of more than 46 minutes.
Without increasing the region's network of alternate modes such as railways and buses, the Department of Transportation expects congested conditions to increase dramatically by 2030, Palmquist said.
"It demonstrates that with increasing traffic volumes expected in the coming decades, some kind of solutions are needed," Palmquist said.
Plans to bid out a $93 million project this year to widen Interstate 95 at the heavily congested area between exits 14 and 15 to add speed change lanes should improve traffic flow through Norwalk, state Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said.
Duff said a fresh look at a long-deferred project to build an expressway on Route 7 between I-84 in Danbury and I-95 in Norwalk is needed to ease congestion and revitalize the economy in the region.
"Quality of life and economic livelihood could be improved by moving forward on Super 7 and continuing to discuss how best to approach that with our new governor," said Duff, who serves as vice-chairman of the General Assembly's transportation committee. "It doesn't only impact Norwalk but everyone else living along the line too."
The report also noted that rush hour traffic flagged at a traffic counting station on Interstate 95 near Exit 14 showed a 7 percent growth in overall trips from 2007 to 2011, despite the average total number of trips falling by about 5 percent during the same four-year span.
Palmquist said this would strongly indicate motorists have scaled back on their mid-day non-peak automobile travel.
"It would appear that people would travel at peak times when they have to, but fuel costs and the slow economy may have curbed discretionary trips for shopping and other reasons," Palmquist said.