Editor's Note: This is the third installment of a three-day series detailing the Arrigoni Bridge construction project and the impact it will have on the lives of Middlesex County residents, commuters and businesses. Patch will continue to cover the project as it moves along its 18-month timeline toward an expected completion date in November of 2012.
Portland First Selectwoman Susan Bransfield sees a potential business upside to the Arrigoni Bridge reconstruction work that kicked off this week.
Perhaps, she mused, commuters on the east side of the bridge will seek to avoid anticipated traffic delays on the Arrigoni and they’ll opt to frequent businesses on Portland’s side of the river.
“It may actually help some of our businesses,” Bransfield said. “If residents don’t use the bridge they can go to local businesses, such as Rite Aid or Tri Town (Foods). So in that respect, it could be helpful.”
That’s not exactly the kind of outcome Middletown business leaders are looking for during the bridge work.
At the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce, officials have sought to allay concerns among local business owners that the 18-month bridge work -- and its anticipated traffic gridlock -- will hurt local businesses.
One of the main ways the chamber has sought to do that is by communicating directly and frequently with local business owners about the bridge work and with state officials, said Johanna Bond, events director for the chamber.
The chamber even created an Arrigoni Bridge subcommittee to act as a liaison with local businesses and the state’s Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the project.
“The primary goal of this group is to create a communication link between the DOT, the contractor and member businesses,” she said. “One of the biggest things we’ve been projecting is that it’s coming and there’s nothing we can do about it. But we’d rather have the bridge fixed than not fixed.”
Still, Bond said, there’s only so much the chamber can do about what are expected to be significant traffic snarls in the city’s North End during peak commuter times. Local business owners on both sides of the river are worried that those traffic delays will mean potential customers could avoid the area altogether.
“It’s going to impact businesses, but it’s got to be done,” Bond said. “In terms of mitigating the impact, there’s not much we can do with that. There’s going to be gridlock, but we’re going to do the best we can. We’re 100 percent supporting the businesses, but there’s only so many places these cars can go. It’s going to be a wait-and-see situation. It’s going to be a work in progress.”
Eric Smith, interim director of Middletown’s Downtown Business District, said his agency also is keeping in close contact with business owners to help them through the project. But like Bond, he said there’s not a lot his agency can do about traffic gridlock.
“I think more toward the North End it will be a greater impact because of the intersection there,” Smith said. “At least at the southern end you have greater access from Route 9. But still, it’s going to impact all the businesses.”
The key to making the situation bearable, Bond said, is to keep in constant contact with local businesses and those overseeing the roadwork.
Toward that end, local lawmakers have vowed to meet regularly with the DOT and with local business and community leaders. On Monday, state Sen. Eileen M. Daily, D-Westbrook, and Rep. Christie Carpino, R-Cromwell, held a press conference about the project and assured local business owners that they will do all they can, including meeting biweekly with the DOT, to make sure that all that can be done to mitigate traffic problems will be done.
“We want to make sure that every need and every business is taken care of,” Daily said.
Attending the press conference was Brian O’Connor, director of the Middlesex chamber. The impacts from the project represent a delicate balancing act for local businesses, he said. On the one hand, they don’t want to see too many commuters clogging downtown streets. But on the other hand, they don’t want to scare away potential customers with traffic-gridlock horror stories.
“We have to let people know businesses are open downtown. I think that’s the most important thing,” he said.
The message his group wants to send to those who might seek to avoid the area during the project is to perhaps find alternative routes over the Connecticut River during peak traffic times, “but come here off-peak and on the weekends.”
On her side of the river, Bransfield said officials will have two traffic officers working near the Arrigoni each day to try to ease the gridlock.
In addition, the state has installed “Business Open” signs in front of businesses near the bridge. Those businesses, such as Dunkin’ Donuts, are also impacted by a sidewalk-replacement project that the state has undertaken along the highway as it approaches the Arrigoni.
“We’re managing traffic best we can and putting signs up letting people know that businesses are open,” Bransfield said. “We’re hoping everyone will be cooperative and know that for their travel safety, this bridge project must be completed.”