Runaway Ramp for Tractor Trailers Set to Open on Leap Day in Conn.

Wed February 20, 2008 - Northeast Edition
James A. Merolla



The ramp will open on Leap Day, Feb. 29. There is great irony in that because it is designed to prevent trucks from jumping off the road.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) is supervising work to finish a runaway truck ramp on a dangerous stretch of road at the base of Avon Mountain in Avon, Conn.

The $2.8 million project has brought some heat and much light to this town of 17,000 outside of West Hartford along U.S. Route 44 — a sleepy New England town of some privilege, white-steeple churches, green commons and far too many fatal accidents.

On Sept. 7, 2007, a tractor-trailer crashed into a furniture store at the bottom of Avon Mountain. Miraculously, no one was hit but that accident came two years after a dump truck smashed into 30 cars in the same location, killing four people. Since 1995, 14 people have died on this road, which some have called Connecticut’s version of Dead Man’s Curve.

After the latest trucking disaster Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell ordered daily state inspections of trucks and their truckers.

Many of the drivers — coming east from New York and west from Boston — are unfamiliar with this tricky winding section of Avon.

After two weeks of inspections, state officials found 400 truck violations and pulled 13 drivers off the road. After this success, ConnDOT continued to deploy about 30 inspectors to highways and other state roads for a week-long joint effort with local police in various area towns. Nearly 40 trucks were pulled off the road during a two-week period.

In October, Rell announced that workers had begun installing signs along Route 44 that warned that through trucks weighing more than 13 tons would be prohibited from using the roadway unless their trips originate or end in any of the bordering towns.

“I am pleased that the DOT was able to create and install these signs so quickly,” Rell said at the time. “This is an important step in protecting all motorists on Avon Mountain and dovetails with our ongoing effort to ensure that all trucks, regardless of size and weight, are safe.”

700-Foot Ramp

With Nets, Cables

Following Rell’s announcement, Department of Transportation Commissioner Ralph J. Carpenter said that construction would begin Nov. 19 on a 700-ft. “escape ramp” for runaway trucks on Route 44 on Avon Mountain. The DOT awarded the $2.8 million contract for the project to Bourgeois & Shaw Inc., of Simsbury, Conn.

“Because of recent accidents, this truck ramp is a major component of our overall short- and long-range plan to reduce truck-related crashes and improve traffic safety on Avon Mountain,” Carpenter said. “The safety of the traveling public is always our top priority and I am pleased that we are ready to begin this work.”

The ramp is being constructed on the westbound side of Route 44 before the intersection with Route 10 in Avon.

Carpenter said that this is the first such ramp ever built in Connecticut. The project’s contract has two upcoming milestones to reach — opening the ramp by Feb. 29 and completing the contract by April 30 (weather permitting).

In addition to the ramp itself, Carpenter said the project includes the construction of retaining walls, concrete barrier curbing and a “Dragnet Vehicle Arresting Barrier System.” That system includes a series of metal arresting nets and cables that are attached to self-contained energy absorbing units that are designed to safely slow a vehicle.

Essentially, they are pulleys — connected to extra strong nets — which catch the truck and slow it down to a stop.

The technology is used in other parts of the country. State officials say the closest example is in Williamstown in northwestern Massachusetts. The Williamstown police say the ramp has been used successfully many, many times with minimal damage and no injuries.

Rerouting

Thousands of Trucks

The truck ramp project will affect five private properties along Route 44, two of which were purchased in their entirety by the DOT to provide the proper right of way for the ramp. The other three property owners will be compensated appropriately for the pieces of their property that will be required for the project.

The State Traffic Commission — composed of the commissioners of the departments of transportation, motor vehicles and public safety — originally had approved the temporary ban on “through trucks” weighing more than 13 tons on that stretch of Route 44 only through Jan. 1. That ban was subsequently extended until the ramp project is finished.

Excavation and installation of retaining wall footings have been completed along with the construction of a retaining wall system, the majority of the installation of new drainage structures, construction and paving of new shoulder and truck lane approach along new widened section of Route 44 westbound.

Through Jan. 10, the following work was near completion, according to DOT officials:

• Complete installation of footings for permanent concrete barrier wall curb along the ramp and the approach to the ramp.

• Start installation of permanent cast in place and pre-cast concrete barrier wall curb along the ramp and the approach to the ramp.

• Complete drainage installations.

• Complete roadway reconstruction and paving for approach to the ramp.

• Continue the relocation of overhead “Stop Ahead Sign” and related electrical work.

• Continue installation of permanent signs and related electrical work.

Utilities: Overhead utility pole relocations from the north side of Route 44 to the south side of Route 44 —AT&T start and complete relocations.

Motorists can expect lane closures at all times, in either direction along this section of Route 44 until the contract completion date of April 30. At least one lane in either direction will be available at all times. Construction signs and local police will be used for traffic control.

Ramp Won’t Solve

Avon’s Troubles

The new ramp, however, will only partly address Avon’s larger problem — handling the tens of thousands of drivers who use the steep road every day to travel between Hartford and the increasingly crowded communities to Avon’s west.

Like most older communities in fast-growing suburbs across the country, Avon must make do with roads that were built when traffic was far lighter. Route 44 was that old familiar, pre-highway lane that connected Hartford and Albany, N.Y.

According to town officials, Avon’s population has grown fivefold since 1950. Some 23,000 vehicles a day make the trek in both directions, including more than 1,100 trucks, a constant cause for concern because of their size and the 10 percent grade of the mountain.

Increasingly, the truckers delivering goods to stores who want their stocks replenished quickly, are unfamiliar with the local roads.

For many years, Avon residents have debated how to handle the growing traffic. After that first bad accident in 2005, the police department started Operation Rush Hour, which led to 4,000 drivers being stopped on the mountain, and one-third of them being fined.

In addition to installing the runaway ramp, the state plans to even out and widen turns on the mountain. There has even been talk of moving the road itself at the bottom of Avon Mountain further west. But that remains a very, very big job.

“People understand both sides of the issue,” said Philip K. Schenck Jr., Avon’s town manager for the past 29 years,” But Schenck added that the town has reached a “tipping point” where safety issues must take precedence over any local or industry resistance.

“There are people who believe that if you don’t build the road, the problem will go away,” said Michael Riley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, which represents trucking companies in the state. “People don’t want to see, hear or smell trucks. Yet when they walk into their Stop & Shop, they want their lettuce to be fresh and Budweiser to be cold.” CEG