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Rowayton ‘boondoggle’ up for ‘reasonable’ vote Tuesday

The new Rowayton Avenue bridge shows signs of strain from vehicles just barely scraping below it, Norwalk Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord said.

NORWALK, Conn. – The crux of the matter could be summed up in seven words, according to Sixth Taxing District Commissioner Tammy Langalis: Don’t turn Rowayton Avenue into Route 1.

Langalis was referring to the reconstruction of Rowayton Avenue under and north of the Metro-North bridge, a project that will go ahead if Common Council members vote Tuesday to accept a bid from a construction company. While Langalis and others said many Rowayton residents think the plan will make the road less safe, the problem is the city made a deal with the state years ago and now it’s time to live up to it, Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord said.

Alvord said at last week’s Public Works Committee meeting that it’s possible the project could be subject to minor revisions but, if the city backs out, the state could conceivably ask the city to pay back the money that was spent to reconstruct the Metro-North bridge.

Common Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said he thought of the project as a boondoggle two years ago, the last time it came up for a vote. But, “I have reservations about revisiting an item two years later after everything has been done,” he said.

Councilman Jerry Petrini (R-District D) agreed.

“The time to fight the changes would have been two years ago before taking the state money,” he said. “I have a hard time rejecting at this stage. It doesn’t work that way.”

The plans call for widening the road north of the bridge and lowering the road under the bridge.

Rowayton residents asked the city to widen the road south of the bridge and put in sidewalks for pedestrians walking to the train from the center of town, Common Councilman John Igneri (D-District E) said.

The $2.5 million project is 100 percent reimbursable, with 80 percent of that coming from the federal government, and 20 percent from the state.

“The improvement of the roadway was one of the conditions the state had for the widening of the bridge,” Alvord said. “This was supposed to be done as a complete project. They spent several million extra on widening the bridge on the commitment that the city would make the improvements in the roadway.”

Igneri asked if the money could be spent on sidewalks for the south side. Alvord said that could be done later, but this money was earmarked for the north side.

Damage to the underside of the Rowayton Avenue bridge.

Lowering the road will improve the vertical sight lines for drivers, Alvord said. There’s an additional issue – the state would like this done as soon as possible because vehicles are hitting the underside of the new bridge.

“There’s a safety issue just from the vehicles passing underneath,” he said.

The state would have replaced the old bridge without modifications if the city had not asked for improvements, he said. The standard height is 14½, feet but the state agreed to a 12-foot, 4-inch clearance, he said.

He was not aware that the Darien railroad bridge was rebuilt two years ago with a clearance of 10 feet, 8 inches, information supplied by Langalis.

“That’s a state roadway with big buses and everything,” she said. “It’s hard for me to fathom why Rowayton Avenue, which is not a state road and it’s in a neighborhood, why it needs to be more than it is. I understand it’s a sight issue, but its so little compared to Route 1 in Darien where there’s a stop light and traffic crossing in every direction. We need to think about the scale of Rowayton Avenue versus the scale of Route 1. … We don’t want it to be Route 1.”

Igneri said the changes will encourage speeding. Plus, “You come out the south side and suddenly the road narrows down. I think it will be more dangerous for the pedestrian if suddenly the road narrows,” he said.

“Reasonable people can come to different conclusions, and personally, given the way the hill slopes up so that your lights are hitting the train until you come down, I would take almost virtually exactly what you just said and come to the completely opposite conclusion that if I slid on the ice under the bridge today and somebody came up over that hill and had no ablity to see me whatsoever until they came down, even if they were going the speed limit, I’d most likely be – bing.”

Igneri pushed for a change to the language of the resolution. He got one, but not what he was hoping for.

Igneri wanted to approve the project “contingent” upon studying modifications to the plan. The item on the agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting reads, “approval of this line item is provided that a committee is created to study possibilities to modify the project in order to simultaneously address the safety issues and the concerns of the community.”

“Reasonable changes will be considered,” McCarthy said.

The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. in the council chambers at City Hall.

17 comments

Oldtimer January 13, 2014 at 9:07 am

There was opposition years ago, mostly from property owners south of the bridge, but, even then, it was presented as a “done deal” because of the state being heavily involved in the funding. The opposition should demand to see the paperwork between the City and the State when the deal was first set up and Norwalk applied for all that State funding.
I’ll bet representations were made that Rowayton Ave was a major accident site with lots of serious injuries. I’ll also bet the statistics do not support that claim.

Spanner January 13, 2014 at 12:46 pm

The fire chief used the bridge as an exlample of why a expensive fire truck was purchased it fits under existing bridge

Mike Mushak January 13, 2014 at 1:33 pm

Oldtimer, I agree with your statement. At last Wednesday’s Public Works Committee, Dave McCarthy, Chair of that committee, stated that there were “numerous accidents” at that location, and he personally went down to the Police Dept. to find this out 2 years ago. Sounds convincing, right?
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On Thursday, the day after teh meeting, I checked with the NPD records researcher, and there were actually NO accidents since 2004 north of the station where most of this work is happening, and only ONE accident in 10 years, a minor one with no injuries, at the stop sign with Belmont south of the station. Where did McCarthy get his information?
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Last month, McCarthy said the public hearing requested by a local environmentalist for the Smith St. treatment plant would cost taxpayers “hundreds of thousands”, in a letter where he libeled this environmentalist by saying she had “no credentials to speak of”, even though she does have certifications and has a lifelong career in environmental issues. When asked about the “hundreds of thousands” statement, Mccarthy refused to asnwer, and Hal Alvord stated that there was no evidence of what the hearing would actually cost. See a pattern here?
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Darien’s clearance on their new bridge is 11 feet, same as the existing 11 feet of the Rowayton bridge. Why can Darien get a new bridge on the very busy commercial strip of Route 1, without having to lower and widen the road, yet quaint and narrow residential Rowayton has to get a 14 foot highway size clearance, and widening for 800 feet to interstate-size lanes all the way up to Arnold St., that will make traffic speed increase (as any traffic engineer will tell you) on this otherwise narrow 25 mph road.
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Nearly every road in Norwalk has hills and “humps” that follow the natural terrain of our hilly city. We live with them. The purpose of this project, from what we have been told, is to remove a slight hump in the road that “reduces visibility”. I have studied this stretch for hours and can see no justification for it, as the only time this hump would be an issue would be at high speeds which are prohibited on teh 25 mph road. At legal speeds, there is no issue with visibility, and in fact the hump naturally slows traffic exactly where you want it to slow down, at the north station entrance and near a bridge with much pedestrian traffic. The sudden stop sign south of teh bridge will become a real hazard when you turn the 800 feet of teh road north of teh bridge into a highway for speeding trucks, which is exactly what this project will do. This project clearly will speed up traffic, and I would be there WILL be an accident history here after this project is done, even though there is not one there now.
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There is also NO need to lower the road for emergency vehicles, as most of tehm already fit under 11 feet, and only the hook and ladder based at Exit 14 would need it, but there are few if any tall buildings that need that in Rowayton, and even if it was needed, Highland is a faster route for that truck into Rowayton from its home base.
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In all my years, I have never seen a more blatant waste of taxpayer dollars than this project, that the community never asked for and does not want, and that will plunk down an interstate-highway size road for 800 feet into a narrow and hilly area that has worked fine for decades with almost no accident history. It will also ruin the historic charm of the area by removing stone walls and many tall trees on both sides of the road. The only folks who strongly support it seem to be Dave McCarthy and Hal Alvord, who continue to use false data and exagerrated reasons to justify it. Why?

irishgirl January 13, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Mike,
Why not bring this to the attention of the “mayor for the people”, Rilling?
Doesn’t he figure heavily into this; making decisions about this and being the boss of these two?
While I am not disputing what you have written, my angst is waiting to see if Rilling will live up to his name as a “new” mayor in town that all the democrats so desperately wanted in to make exactly these type of changes….
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Let’s see if Rilling does “anything”, ANYTHING at all, to make ANY type of amends to this outlandish project.

Amy January 13, 2014 at 3:40 pm

We live in the house right by the stop sign; we’ve lived there since before the stop signs were erected. When this project came up a few years ago it was sold to us as a “done deal” just as Old Timer states. And while the speed limit may be 25 mph it is often ignored as are the stop signs. It is truly remarkable no serious accidents have occurred. The only thing that will make this stretch of road safer are drivers who pay attention to the traffic laws (and perhaps leave a bit earlier to catch the train).

Oldtimer January 13, 2014 at 5:20 pm

Mike
McCarthy and Alvord both strong supporters of an idea nobody else seems to want ? Isn’t that what happened with City Carting Co. ? I recall McCarthy claiming, on this site, there was no odor coming from loaded trailer trucks parked outside of City Carting property on a hot Sunday afternoon when he personally checked them 1/2 hour after I was there and there was enough odor to gag a maggot. There seems to be a pattern. I don’t want to speculate on anybody’s motives, but I have long had suspicions about Alvord. Alvord has apparently charmed McCarthy into believing anything he says. Between the two of them they got outsourcing approved and three contracts with City Carting also approved. Makes sme of us wonder.

Mike Mushak January 13, 2014 at 6:45 pm

“Irishgirl”, I believe Mayor Rilling is aware of all these issues, as well as many Common Council members, and as “Debora” states, East Avenue is next, which is currently a project cloaked in secrecy and strange events that involve eminent domain amd mysterious plans no one can see, while DPW denies knowing anything about this project. This is no way to run a city, and things need to change. Alvord and McCarthy just havn’t gotten that memo yet it seems.
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Norwalk should be working hard to build its 21st-century alternative transportation infrastructure, including installing the Norwalk River Valley Trail north of Union Park to New Canaan Avenue, and finishing the Harbor Loop Trail, which will improve the lives of thousands and transform Norwalk into a destination for a regional trail system, just like most other parts of the country have. We should NOT be wasting our time and money widening a country road for truck traffic that has other routes, and where no need has been shown by anyone through any studies or surveys.
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I forgot to mention in my essay above that the fear of truck strikes on the current 11 foot bridge could easily be solved by better signage, which is non-existent in the area until you actually get up to the bridge, which is often too late for truckers busy following their GPS and not paying attention. Common sense and a few hundred dollars worth of signs will solve this problem. Why are we spending $2.8 million of taxpayer money and tying up our dedicated staff who are already stretched thin, for years, to do tghis project that no one wants?
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I am baffled by this project, as are many others, and as I expect Mayor Rilling is too.

David January 13, 2014 at 9:03 pm

I’m sorry, I might not be reading this right, but the project will cost $2.5 million, and the city will get all of that back, is that correct? (from both federal and state funds). Is there additional expense to the city?

Mike Mushak January 13, 2014 at 11:17 pm

David, yes, there is additional expense to the city. The project will be supervised by city staff, so when they could be doing other projects that the city actually needs and communities have asked for, they will be tied up at Norwalk taxpayer expense handling this project that no one wants and that there is no real need for. There have also been reports of up to $400,000 additional expense to the city, that apparently were discussed 2 years ago, but that mysteriously was not mentioned at the committee meeting last week.
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We can also safely say that there will be a quality of life expense to the residents of Rowayton, who will deal with 2 more years of major disruptions, only to have a truck thoroughfare where one never existed, on a narrow country road where there will now be 800 feet of highway standard speedway eliminating stone walls and trees. It will also speed up traffic as wider roads always do, which any first-year traffic engineer can explain to you. Highly inappropriate, and a big mistake that I can assure you most folks will regret having done when it is finished.

Mary January 14, 2014 at 12:19 am

Not sure that a truck driver would be able to fit his 13’5 rig under a 12’4 underpass. Unlikely to become a truck thouroghfare, unless truck drivers are looking to turn their rigs into a convertibles. No shortcut to/from 95, to and from where? One concern that is not being discussed is flooding, which the Darien project has also failed to successfully address.

irishgirl January 14, 2014 at 7:12 am

If the mayor is baffled by it then the citizens can be assured that the mayor will step up and really do everything in his power to counter act this project.
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Let’s see if Rilling will do that – so people who voted for him (not the unions but the democratic people) can count on him to do the right thing, after all this is why he was voted in.

David January 14, 2014 at 10:13 am

Mike, so “there are reports” doesn’t exactly answer the question. One of the knocks on the Moccia administration was a lack of transparency, but there’s no need for that to be an excuse any more.
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Regarding “city staff”: Who are those staff, what would they be doing if not supervising this project. Are these staff “paid” for with the $2.5 million?
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Regarding the “quality of life” issue – look, we could use that excuse to knock down progress of ANY sort. In the long run, making better roads makes positive contributions to a community.
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Can this money be used anywhere, or is it “use it or lose it”? There’s also mention of having to pay back the state for the cost of the bridge? How much is that? Will this end up costing us more if we DON’T do it?
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I understand, and I am sensitive to the negatives, but I have a hard time justifying turning down infrastructure investment of this magnitude in our community. The state will ultimately take that money and spend it someplace else, if we don’t.

Mike Mushak January 14, 2014 at 12:26 pm

David, this issue moved very fast after the election, put on the agenda without the public aware that it was coming through any announcement or discussion. I noticed it the morning of the meeting when I looked at the agenda, as did a couple of other astute observers, but the community in general was unaware, in fact, many thought it has been killed 2 years ago when there was so much controversy around it. No one had time to research the issue to the degree it deserved, including facts about state agreements, total costs to the city, and other issues that were hotly debated 2 years ago. It seemed like it was being “slipped through” this time.
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What we do know is that city staff will NOT be paid from the state and federal grants, as Alvord acknowledged in the meeting. Facts about other costs may come out in further public feedback, as the DPW cannot be trusted to give us the actual real facts, as the unfortunate and disturbing false statements from them about accident rates and emergency vehicle access have so vividly proven.
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Your point about infrastructure improvements ignores the fact that there are no real reasons to improve this particular infrastructure, and it will not fit into the context of the area (see my letter in NON today that the Hour decided not to publish, although there is an excellent letter by Diane Cece today on this issue), talking about Context-Sensitive Solutions, or CSS, that smart transportation officials are now using all over the country, but NOT here in Norwalk yet, one more issue where we lag instead of lead).
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The point is we have much infrastructure to fix in Norwalk, without having to find stupid projects like this (there, I said it) that there is no need for, as all the facts support. It is just “engineers gone wild”, and your assumption that the state and federal funds are just “free money” is astounding. Sadly, this project will be part of a formula that the state uses to determine total transportation funding for Norwalk, which means we will not get as much later to do some other project where there is an actual stated need that the facts and the community support.
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Lets not forget the West Avenue debacle, where 7 lanes of traffic and no state of the art bike lanes were installed in front of 95/7 a few years ago, while most other cities were doing much better projects at the same time with state funding (including Stamford with its Transitway), because of the law passed in 2008 by Jodi Rell that all state funded projects will have bike lanes, called the Complete Streets Bill. Everywhere except Norwalk.
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Last year, DPW rejected the findings of the taxpayer-funded $200,000 Connectivity Study that recommended a state of the art 3 lane road diet with crucial bike lanes, north of 95 to Wall St., following urban design trends that most smart cities around the country are now following. This tragic decision will guarantee a 4 lane speedway for generations exactly where we don’t want it, in front of a new $350 million project whose owners expressed a desire for bike lanes, and whose future residents including millennials and empty-nesters will be seeking an easier way to get around besides cars, as numerous studies show. These folks may just end up choosing Stamford or Bridgeport or New Haven to live, where smarter transportation decisions are being made, if they seek the vibrant downtown environments that are the future of population growth as most experts and studies show.
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Without smart transportation and planning decisions, I fear we may end up creating yet another ghost town with empty storefronts on West Ave, as we have already proven we can create in Norwalk with decades of bad planning decisions, as anyone can see on Wall Street after millions of flawed taxpayer investment and poor maintenance and non-existent enforcement of ordinances. The long-needed overhaul if our Planning and Zoning Department and obsolete zoning code with regressive parking requirements will be a necessary component of moving Norwalk forward.
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This is why ALL transportation design decisions by our DPW engineers must by a public review committee, and not left solely up to city engineers who may not be aware of larger issues beyond the obsolete last-century principal of moving the highest number of trucks and cars at the highest rates of speed through our city, ignoring the negative impacts this clearly has on future economic growth and quality of life, especially for pedestrians ( including children and elderly), and cyclists. Our streets must be designed for folks of all abilities and transportation modes, which is why it is state law. We have a $90 2011 study calling for bike lanes and better sidewalks and footpaths on Rowayton Ave and Richards Ave, connecting the train station to both the center of Rowayton and the Norwalk Community College. Why isn’t this being implemented instead of the useless “highway to nowhere” we are debating here?
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Last year, Mayor Moccia surprisingly invited a top urban planner named Jeff Speck to visit Norwalk for 3 days to review our city’s transportation planning decisions. Unfortunately, Mayor Moccia didn’t stay long enough after introducing him to hear his wonderful lecture about his new book called “Walkable City”, where he states that the “worst decision any city can make is having its streets and roads designed by their DPW”. Norwalk is currently making this mistake, as West Ave, Strawberry Hill, Beach Rd., Rowayton Ave, and soon East Ave attest to, and that is just in the last couple of years. Mr Speck made it clear we have a lot of catching up to do (when the city overlooked his accommodations after inviting him here, I put him up in my house, and had some great conversations about Norwalk’s issues). We need a committee to oversee these crucial decisions, and I have talked with Mayor Rilling about this need. Stay tuned, and thanks for your patience. There is just so much to do to fix our broken city, and we can start by limiting bad decisions by our own DPW and other agencies with good public input and more transparency, both of which were sorely lacking on the Rowayton Avenue widening issue.

David January 14, 2014 at 1:35 pm

I don’t know Mike – there’s a lot of hyperbole in there. I mean, this was agree to, 2 years ago, as a condition of the State fixing the bridge (or so it reads, anyway). It seems like its necessary, from the states point of view anyway, because people keep hitting the underneath of the bridge – visual evidence of which is included in this article. That alone, from the states perspective, would be enough for the project to go ahead, and they’ve even provided the bulk of (if not all of) the money to do so. If we don’t do it, there’s a possibility that the state tells us to give them back the money for fixing the bridge!
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It looks like this comes down to residents just not wanting the work to happen. And I get that, I see that perspective. But the chief reason being, that if the roadworks are successful, traffic will flow more smoothly, and thus more people will use the road. Now that’s just silly. I’m sure the people on Highland ave (and elsewhere), and on the alternate routes you suggested would appreciate a better distribution of traffic once the roadworks are completed. Or, does their opinion not matter?
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Look, you’re on record regarding bike lanes, walk-ability, livability, etc, and I agree with you on that. But unless you have shovel-ready plans that require resources and have funding ready to go, right now, then I just can’t see how we reject this infusion of capital into the city.

Mike Mushak January 14, 2014 at 2:19 pm

David, Darien has the exact same height, 11 feet, on its NEW bridge on Route 1. They were not required to lower and widen the road to accommodate higher trucks. They simply added more signage along the road to warn errant truckers. Why did Darien keep 11 feet but Rowayton has to increase its height? Does Darien have smarter folks making decisions for its future? We have no warning signage on Rowayton Avenue except at the bridge. It would not cost much to add 10 more signs say, at $250 each, warning trucks begining at he top and bottom or Rowayton Avenue, that there is a low clearance ahead, same as other cities do it but Norwalk seems to be dumbfounded by common sense solutions like this, as this is not the only location where simple solutions were ignored for overblown inappropriate solutions, which is exactly whet this project is.
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Is this hyperbole as you claim? Perhaps, but after hearing false claims about accident rates and emergency vehicles being made by two elected and/or appointed public officials just last week to justify this project, I am left astounded by the level of corruption in our decision making process, and anger is justified while lies, excuse me, mis-statements to be polite, are being told by officials.
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We now have a distinction of being the city noted by planning professionals around the Northeast as a good example of how NOT to plan a city. That is not an honor I am proud of, as no one should be in our great city.
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The regrettable part of all this is that a good local company will not get the business it was expecting if this project is cancelled, but should we be basing our support on this reason alone? There is plenty of other work for local companies if we approach our planning decisions based on real need, and serious issues that communities care about, and not an unpopular project that no one wants, and that will destroy the cherished character of an area and quality of life for so many.

David January 14, 2014 at 2:40 pm

Mike I don’t know why the Darien situation is different. I don’t know. They could be very similar situations or they could be completely different. Perhaps the road under the bridge is as low as it can go already? I know that road floods a lot during heavy rains. I don’t know why the Darien bridge is the way it is, but the Rowayton bridge has a problem that can be fixed. That fix was agreed to, two years ago. The state is willing to pick up most, if not all, of the cost of that solution. And we agreed to this.
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You keep on bringing this back to a city wide planning, and I agree that needs to be better. If you want to bash ex-mayor Moccia, you’ll find an ally in me there. But not doing this one project doesn’t mean we will enter into a renaissance phase of city planning and development throughout the city. City planning was so neglected under the prior administration that it’s going to take years to get back up to speed. This project CAN happen in the meantime.
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I think your last paragraph is the one that resonates strongest with me. This is a chance to inject $2.5 million into the local economy. For a city that cries like a banshee about lack of economic progress, high taxes and being ignored by the state, it boggles the mind that we don’t jump at the opportunity to invest in our roads when we can. And this isn’t some “tax break to a big box” type of investment. It’s shovel ready, paid for (mostly, if not all – still a question there) and will last for 10, 20 years. Somewhere, there’s a prize winning economist banging his/her head over this. And again, the ONLY reason I can see that THIS project has opposition is that locals are afraid it will be successful! Mike I agree with you on most things, but I just can’t see why THIS project can’t go ahead in a reasonable, responsible manner. I think we would be mad to refuse it. Just my humble opinion on the matter.

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