Going somewhere? Not in Shelton when Route 8 backs up

No one has to tell police Chief Joel Hurliman how bad traffic was in Shelton on March 6 when a section of Route 8 northbound in Derby and Ansonia was closed because of an accident.

It took Hurliman more than an hour to get the 1.3 miles from police headquarters to his home on that Thursday night.

Like everyone else caught in the mess, there was nothing he could really do except try to remain patient.

Two accidents on Route 8 north in the early afternoon — one involving a chemical spill — led to a section of the highway being closed for a few hours.

The closure lasted long enough to overlap with the evening commute, when thousands of drivers use Route 8 to head north to get home from their offices.

Back-ups moved farther south

The backups on the highway crept farther and farther south, and more drivers tried to find creative ways to get around the accident scene — for instance, by hopping off Route 8 at various exits in Shelton.

The result was gridlock on the local streets of Shelton anywhere near Route 8 — from lower Bridgeport Avenue to downtown — as well as many other roads that might be considered alternate roads by frustrated drivers.

Many horns were honking as vehicles were unable to get through intersections. “You can’t get anywhere,” said one frustrated Shelton driver trying to get across town.

The local traffic backups lasted for more than four hours.

Wall-to-wall cars, plus new accidents

It’s not the first time this has happened in Shelton, and it won’t be the last. When a major problem occurs on Route 8, especially during a peak commuting time, it leads to wall-to-wall cars, irked drivers, and even local fender-benders.

On March 6, for instance, two vehicles collided on Howe Avenue at Cornell Street because of the congestion.

There simply is no way to get from here to there without getting stuck, as many Shelton residents were reminded last week.

The ride home from work, even if only a few miles, turns into a nightmare. As does a trip to a school, to a store, to a friend’s house, or anywhere else.

It’s a matter of too many cars being in the same place at the same time, trying to head in the same direction.

For drivers: ‘It's basically a disaster’

Mayor Mark Lauretti said little can be done under such circumstances. “It is what it is,” Lauretti said. “There’s nothing anyone can do.”

The mayor said he understands the frustration of drivers, having experienced it himself many times through the years. “We all are aware of what is going on at the time, but there’s nothing that can be done about it,” he said. “It’s basically a disaster.”

Last week’s congestion caused problems for Lauretti, too, when he tried to get to the Merritt Parkway for an out-of-town event in the early evening. Luckily, by then the traffic was beginning to break up a bit, plus he wasn’t heading in the same direction as most other motorists.

Coordinating with nearby towns

Hurliman said the Shelton Police Department tries to coordinate the response to such incidents with other impacted police forces.

The goal is to keep vehicles flowing as much as possible, “We try to establish traffic posts so we can keep the people getting off Route 8 moving,” he said. “It didn’t work that well last week, obviously.”

Some Shelton officers did begin directing traffic at a few downtown intersections, where the gridlock may have been the worst.

But if the traffic around the corner isn’t going anywhere, then having all the officers in the world directing traffic doesn’t do much good. “You have to have somewhere for people to go,” Hurliman said.

“The last thing people want to see is a cop in the middle of the intersection if the cop really can’t do anything,” he said. “That’s frustrating to the drivers — and to the officers.”

He said the situation last Thursday was made worse by all the snow and ice piled on roadsides, blocking extra traffic lanes in some locations.

Don’t block the box

Hurliman said the primary goal becomes to keep people from blocking intersections so emergency vehicles — police, fire and ambulance — can get through if necessary. “That’s why it’s really important not to block the box,” he said.

What’s the police chief’s advice when such gridlock occurs?

“If people are aware traffic is that bad, they should try to take an alternative route,” said Hurliman, noting he personally provided people with directions last week who called looking for guidance.

Another possibility is to “stop and eat somewhere, then have a pleasant drive home later,” he said.