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Norwalk council sends Rowayton ‘boondoggle’ forward

Construction on the Rowayton Avenue in the vicinity of the railroad bridge will begin with work on the curbs, Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord said. Heavy duty road work will begin in summer and will affect motorists.

NORWALK, Conn. – Work is expected to begin on Rowayton Avenue in April as the Norwalk Common Council on Tuesday night approved a construction contract for the long-planned project. The roadwork at the railroad station is expected to be done by December, possibly much sooner.

The vote came after a spirited two-hour debate that touched on the history of the project, the need to notify the public when work will be done in their area and the legitimacy of comments made by the public. There were alternating claims of “misinformation” and statements that inspire a “lack of confidence” from the public as two District E councilmen squared off, and one councilman – who called the project a “boondoggle” two years ago – was called out for what was labeled a “180” spin.

Rowayton Avenue is expected to be lowered in the area of the railroad station at a cost of $2.3 million, which is 100 percent reimbursable with state and federal money. The construction contract was scheduled for a vote at the last council meeting, but Mayor Harry Rilling asked the council to table it so he and other concerned citizens could meet with the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT) to discuss it.

State officials told city officials that, if the project was stopped now, after the railroad bridge had been rebuilt at state and federal expense, Norwalk would have to write a check for $500,000, according to the accounts given by city officials.

That meeting was called a “token” by Nora King, one of six Rowayton residents who addressed the council directly to ask that the contract not be approved. Her sentiment was echoed by Mike Mushak, who was given time by a seventh Rowayton resident.

“I believe the meeting on Friday was a well-rehearsed dog and pony show designed to intimidate Norwalk officials into making an irrational decision to move ahead with this over-scaled boondoggle,” Mushak said.

Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) took offense at those comments and the implied accusation against the three state officials who came to a Norwalk meeting to review the plans.

“Somebody here tonight called those three people liars,” Hempstead said. “That disturbs me. If you can prove that then I will take that under consideration.”

King said a majority of taxpayers are opposed to the project. Two members of the Rowayton Historical Society, Wendell Livingston and Lesley Korzennik, said the project would alter the historical aspect of an area that is eligible to be on the National Historic Register. Roger Smith, also of Rowayton, called it a “totally unnecessary expense” that is an example of the kinds of things that are escalating taxes and driving residents out.

Jim McPartlan, a Rowayton Avenue resident, said he wouldn’t know anything about the project if a neighbor hadn’t sent him an email. It would have been nice if the city had let him know, he said. “You have no problem finding my house when my taxes are due,” he said.

One Rowayton resident, former Councilman Andy Conroy, spoke in favor of the project. The railroad bridge was more than 100 years old, a “tunnel suitable for a horse and buggy” before it was rebuilt by CDOT, he said. Residents asked for a new one in the early 1990s, he said. The project was stalled for years because CDOT required the new bridge to have a clearance of 14 feet, up from what was an 11-foot, 6-inch clearance.

When the bridge was rebuilt, the road beneath it was widened, which meant that the steel supporting the railroad tracks needed to be thicker, he said, the reason the clearance under the bridge is now 11 feet.

Trucks have gouged the underside of the new bridge. The clearance will be increased to 12 feet, 4 inches under the plan.

Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E), chairman of the Public Works Committee, led the charge in defending the project, saying that many assertions are not true.

“We are not really here to even approve the project,” McCarthy said. “That was done in 2011 and actually the years before that. … What we are really talking about is the construction contract.”

The council did approve the project in 2011. Tuesday’s vote was to approve the selection of a construction company and the budget for the project.

McCarthy said there is a misconception that the road is being widened. The road north of the bridge will be narrowed, he said. The south side is being widened to make it a consistent 28-foot road.

The height of the bridge is not being increased, he said, it’s being returned to the height it was.

His District E rival, Democrat John Igneri, said residents do not have faith in things said by politicians.

“Over the two years (that he’s been involved with this project), we’ve had lots of things told to us that were supposed to be done not actually completed or changed, so there’s a lack of confidence in what was being said.”

There were many good things about the work that had been done on the bridge, he said. But on the north side, a lot of screening will be destroyed, he said. Specimen cedar trees will be taken down, he said. “I question if that’s not changing the neighborhood,” he said.

Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said he had called the project a boondoggle two years ago, but since then he has experienced commuting from the East Norwalk train station and he has come to realize that there are other Norwalk residents to worry about in addition to those who live near a project.

Councilman David Watts (D-District A) said he thinks the city needs to do more to inform citizens of what is going on. “I don’t know if I feel comfortable voting for a project when a resident who lives on the street has to hear about it in an email,” he said.

He pointed out Kimmel had done a “180,” and said he should own the “boondoggle” line because he created it. McCarthy said Watts had done his own 180-degree turn, as two years ago he spoke in favor of the project and voted for it.

An extended recess was taken. Democrats worked on the language for an amendment; Republicans took time to study it. It was eventually discarded.

McCarthy said anyone who objects to the project as it progresses can come and address their concerns at the Public Works Committee. Kimmel said that system had worked out well with local flooding issues.

The vote to approve the contract was 9-6. Voting for it was every member of the Republican caucus and John Kydes (D-District C).

The vote caused Rilling to single out a Rowayton resident who had been knitting through the marathon.

“Is my sweater ready yet?” he joked.

19 comments

Bruce Kimmel January 29, 2014 at 8:10 am

Good story.
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It is true that I called the project a boondoggle two years ago, voted against it, and even wrote a column about it. At the time, I viewed the it exclusively from the perspective of a residential neighborhood; moreover, I did not have all the facts regarding certain safety issues.
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However, after that vote, as I made my daily commute to and from Manhattan, along Newtown/East Avenue, I began to look at the Rowayton Avenue project from the perspective of a commuter and decided that the project was okay; a balance between the needs of residents and those of commuters.
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Norwalk has several commuter railroad stations and they present special types of safety problems. Regarding East Avenue, and its future renovation near the East Norwalk Station, all I can say is that it is currently unsafe for the many people who use it twice every day.

the donut hole January 29, 2014 at 9:29 am

A better example of a boondoggle would be a trip to Vegas for a convention of masterminds that never produce anything.
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In this case we will be left with a state of the art bridge and modernized roadway where delivery trucks can bring all sorts of goodies to the residents who buy them in the area. That is a tangible product, unlike most government expense which goes to freeloaders and pensioners and doesn’t actually produce any tangible product.
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In that regard, state government itself is by and large a boondoggle.

Mike Mushak January 29, 2014 at 10:27 am

Last night was a watershed moment in Norwalk history. The great change promised by new leadership has begun. I am so proud of John Igneri, David Watts, Travis Simms, Phae Bowman, Eloisa Melendez, and Sharon Stewart, who stood up for the strong principle of public advocacy in our broken system of how our important and life-altering transportation projects are designed and executed. They deserve much credit for being voices of reason in the face of all the evidence that this project was NOT handled well by either the state or our own DPW.
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As Mr. Kimmel claims above in his post, there is no doubt that East Avenue near the train station is unsafe, and needs work. The bridge does needs widening. The bottleneck with the wacky lane maneuvers near Myrtle needs to be fixed. But community and business leaders have legitimate (and so far unaddressed) fears the concurrent and still mysterious plan to widen the rest of East Avenue will not reflect the community’s interests (Hal Alvord is keeping the plans and status of the project a closely held secret-why?-as the state moves ahead with controversial eminent domain at questionable values.)
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Will East Avenue become an over-engineered highway for speeding trucks making shortcuts to South Norwalk, and if so, how will that affect property values and the desires of East Norwalk residents to improve their little “downtown” to make it more of a walkable and bikable and safe destination? Will it look more like charming Old Greenwich, or more like inhospitable and dangerous Westport Avenue? These are the questions that need answering.

What East Avenue needs is an immediate and full transparent public review of every meeting, discussion, and plan that state officials have had with our own DPW officials, to make sure the community’s desire for a sensitive and livable solution is met, with FULL public participation as promised by the Common Council and Hal Alvord last night. We want accountability and tranparency, which we are NOT getting now, which led to the fiasco we saw last night.
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East Avenue needs ample pedestrian and biking facilities required by state law 09-154,which was clearly ignored with impunity on the Rowayton Avenue project, despite the existence of $600,000 worth of taxpayer-funded professional studies. The $500k Transp. Management Plan, shown here, http://www.vhb.com/norwalktmp/pdf/final/Chapter%203-1%20-%20Demonstration%20Locations.pdf, on pages 13,14,20,23,and 28, and the $90k Pedestrian and Bikeway Plan, shown here
http://ct-norwalk.civicplus.com/DocumentCenter/Home/View/2115, on pages 9,14,15, and 34, recommend Rowayton/Richards Ave. from Fillow near Fox Run School, past the busy community college and train station, all the way down to Cudlipp at the water at the south end, be made a SAFE 3-mile pedestrian and biking corridor. These studies were completely ignored by state and city officials in this Rowayton plan, as I explained publicly and on the record last night. Why?
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Also, how did a bunch of phantom accidents in the train station area appear from McCarthy last night, when the Norwalk Police Department official records showed only 4 minor accidents (one construction related, so actually 3)in a 13 year period from 2000-2013? This needs explaining, as McCarthy has claimed this project was necessary to improve safety based on the high accident rate, which we could find no record of at the NPD. Strange.

Last, our own DPW rejected a $200,000 Connectivity Study that recommended a 3 lane road diet with bike lanes on West Avenue from Mathews Park to Wall Street, a study by a nationally recognized tranportation and urban planning firm that took 3 years and involved countless meetings and input from the community. DPW simply rejected it with no explanation, and now we are going to have a 4 lane speedway exactly where we need the study’s recommended plan, to encourage more walkable and bikable environment that many studies show enhance retail and restaurant growth, exactly what we need in that struggling corridor where a developer (who wants bike lanes) is investing $350 million at Waypointe.
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This is sheer madness that DPW, totally on their own, rejected a smart and modern plan for West Avenue that was created with full public participation in a 3 year open and transparent process. This West Avenue plan MUST be restored immediately, and East Avenue plans made public IMMEDIATELY, before DPW rolls the plans out someday soon and then says it is too late to change and will cost us too much to go backwards, EXACTLY what happened on Rowayton Avenue.
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We will not be fooled again, and there will be no more secrets by our DPW that has a history of acting with arrogance towards the very public that pays their generous salaries with our high property taxes. It is unbelievable how badly the public is treated,not just by DPW, but also by the rogue P and Z Department, with no transparency or accountability, and that must change.
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I demand that the Public Works Committee fulfill the great suggestion by David Watts last night, to have full public involvement in our important and life-altering road projects, which was promised by McCarthy, Kimmel,and Hempstead,and also by Hal Alvord himself,last night, all on the record. I will be following up with the Committee, and will keep NON informed of all progress, so we can make sure those promises are kept. Stay tuned.

the donut hole January 29, 2014 at 10:55 am

Yes, we should have landscape architects design and build bridges. You see now, that didn’t take 8000 words of psychobabble to spit out.

David January 29, 2014 at 12:05 pm

There are three sets of important numbers I see in this article:
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2.3 million – dollars, the cost of the project
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100 – as in percent, of the cost of the project that will be reimbursable by the state.
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500,000 – dollars, the amount city taxpayers will have to pay the state if we don’t go ahead with the project.
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Doesn’t take a economics Nobel laureate to work this one out.

Ken January 29, 2014 at 12:40 pm

People should pay more attention. The time to try & stop this was years ago. Though I agree they could work better to inform residents & get input. I think East Norwalks issue with the East Ave crossing is much more pressing and important though. In a lot of ways Metro North makes living in parts of Norwalk less than spectacular.

Mike Mushak January 29, 2014 at 1:11 pm

I should have thanked John Kydes as well in my post above, when I listed the Democrats who voted against the project, even though he voted with the Republicans for the project.
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He introduced an amendment to add public input to the resolution,which was denounced by the GOP caucus and subsequently withdrawn by Mr. Kydes, but which was the compromise Democrats asked for. Mr. Kydes at least tried, and deserves support for that which I forgot to mention above.
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To address “David” above, this project is NOT fully remimbursable to the city, and it will cost Norwalk taxpayers up to $400,000 in staff time and other costs (by one report from several years ago that I have not confirmed.) What was confirmed last night by Hal Alvord, was that the landscaping will be paid for out of the city tree-planting budget, which is allocated by Norwalk taxpayers to pay for tree planting all over the city. Why wouldn’t the landscaping, which we were told will be abundant to compensate for the loss of dozens of mature trees in that corridor, have been included in the “reimbursable” project budget? Was it an oversight, or was it simply misleading for some Councilmembers like Dave McCarthy to claim that this project will not cost city taxpayers a penny, at the same time we are told staff time is not reimbursable (Hal Alvord’s statement on the record from 2 weeks ago) and his statement last night that the abundant landscaping will be paid for by city taxpayers? Is Mr. McCarthy implying that our city staff will work for free on this project, and the landscaping will be funded by some other source besides city taxpayers? Who’s telling the truth here?

David January 29, 2014 at 2:14 pm

“Mike”: You’re the only one saying that this will cost taxpayers money, and you’ve NEVER confirmed this. Confirm this and you’ll have an argument….beyond landscaping, that is. (seriously?)

Tim K January 29, 2014 at 2:20 pm

Can’t someone in Norwalk look up a synonym in the Thesaurus for ‘boondoggle’ already? It’s tired.

Here you go:

Mike Mushak January 29, 2014 at 4:11 pm

David, funny you should ask. “Landscaping” usually involves grading and topsoil, erosion control, new lawns, grouondcovers, perennials, shrubs,and trees. You make it sound like there is going to be a little bed of mulch with mums near the corner! LOL!
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Hal Alvord said he would be planting extensively including many trees, which go for $700 a pop to plant elsewhere in the city, which is what the city pays the contractor to do it. On a project with 800 feet of major roadway cut, with extensive grading work, possible 50 trees to replace all the lost trees and plantings, and perhaps 100 shrubs, I would bet you are in for a landscaping budget of $200k to $300k, easily. This would follow the general rule of a landscaping budget of about 10% of a project’s cost. This is not small change.
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As far as staff time being not reimbursed, I could not find that in the minutes from the January 7th Public Works Committee meeting where I distinctly remember Hal Alvord saying it in the discussion: http://www.norwalkct.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/7419. It would have been great to have a video tape of the meeting on teh website, which is not technically difficult in this day and age. Perhaps it was left out of the minutes by mistake, or by intent. But Hal did say that staff time to supervise the project was a city expense. This could easily be confirmed by asking Hal again directly to confirm, or finding a recording of the meeting from staff if it still exists.

David January 29, 2014 at 4:36 pm

Mike, you’re making a circular argument: WHAT is NOT covered in the $2.3 million project? You’ve made all sorts of references without providing any solid facts on the matter. Your replies are simply unreadable, so provide actual numbers that you know are not included in the accounted for costs and where you got those numbers.

Mike Mushak January 29, 2014 at 5:40 pm

David, I have had to deduce numbers from statements made by Hal Alvord. Of course I don’t have the landscaping budget, as it was Hal who said it would be figured out later and paid for out of the city tree planting budget. I can only guess what that might be as I already did in my post above. It was based on both the statement from Alvord last night that the city would pay for the abundant landscaping, and a previous statement that he made that staff’s time to supervise would not be reimbursed. How do you expect me to know what these hard costs are? Dave McCarthy stated repeatedly that this project was FULLY reimbursable and would not cost city taxpayers anything, yet we have two statements from officials that contradict that claim. If you can’t read or understand my statements, maybe take some reading lessons, as they are quite legible to everyone else!

David January 29, 2014 at 6:05 pm

Mike, I’m not the only one who can’t read your drivel, believe me. But still, STILL, you haven’t laid out where the tax payers will have to pony up $400k for this project. The city HAS a tree plainting budget, it’s going to use those funds for this project, not devote extra funds specifically for this project, at additional cost to tax payers. Unless you’re saying otherwise, and you have facts to that effect.
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This is $2,300,000 that will be invested in our city and you’re making the weakest arguments as to why it shouldn’t be done.

Oldtimer January 29, 2014 at 7:15 pm

David
Do you hear yourself ?
2.3 million wasted is ALL taxpayer money, no matter how you massage the language, no matter what budget it comes out of, it is ALL taxpayer money and you, and a few others, seem determined to waste it on a project that accomplishes nothing except to annoy a few Rowayton residents. I don’t believe the governor would support this against the will of the affected residents, if he was asked by the mayor. He does not have money to waste. He knows it is all taxpayer money. I don’t believe the DOT people you met with have the authority to make the threat they made. But I should know better than to debate with you.

David January 29, 2014 at 9:19 pm

Oldtimer: You’re right, that’s OUR taxes, and I want that invested back in OUR community. I want the “multiplier effect” of that money spent in our City. I want the engineering/construction crews buying breakfast, lunch, dinner in Norwalk establishments. I’m not sure how the contracting would work but man it would be great if a local company gets to work on it, or as many local companies as possible, anyway.
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If there’s a choice that is something like “don’t spend the money and give rebates to citizens instead” or “don’t spend the money in the first place”, then that’s a different story. But that’s NOT a choice here. We do this work or we’re on the hook and half a million owed to the state. We agreed to this and it’s paid for – despite the veiled assertions that Mike is making, and providing absolutely no evidence of, whatsoever.

Diane C2 January 29, 2014 at 9:21 pm

What part of IT’S MY MONEY don’t these republicans understand????? $2.3 MILLION dollars on a project that is not needed, not wanted, and not justified.
And DOT goons holding our city hostage by demanding repayment of funds is beyond ridiculous.
Citizens should demand that this project be stopped immediately; that this mayor “ask” Hal Alvord to resign; and then send a letter to Governor Malloy daring him to send a bill to Norwalk for repayment of funds that were not spent.

David January 30, 2014 at 9:58 am

Nancy: Is that $250k a part of the overall $2.3 million budget? Will it be re-imbursed? If we were to cancel the project, would it be an assumed cost? Regardless, it is now a sunk cost. What are the details?

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