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.