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East Norwalk crowd: State is railroading bridge work down city’s throat

Public Works Committee 16-0106 074

East Norwalk resident Deb Goldstein holds up plans for the East Avenue widening Tuesday at the Common Council Public Works Committee meeting in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – The state is stiff-arming Norwalk, according to a “very vocal” group who turned out in force Tuesday to protest the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s plans for East Avenue.

Protesting East Norwalkers didn’t quite get what they wanted from the Common Council Public Works Committee, but Council members threw them a bone, delaying their vote on work preliminary to the East Avenue widening to a yet-to-be-arranged special meeting later this month, to give the public a chance to hear the latest plans.

There hasn’t been a public hearing on the topic since 2009, and the state is steamrolling ahead, protesters said.

“If you, our elected officials, won’t stand up for us when the state is coming down here to bully us, who will?” Deb Goldstein asked the Council members.

The state has connected the long-discussed East Avenue widening project with the rebuilding of the railroad bridge over the Norwalk River, and is expediting the work on a schedule that has been described as “aggressive.” The “scope of services” memo from A. DiCesare Associates, P.C., outlining the proposed $359,000 contract under consideration by the committee, said the state has declared a state of emergency regarding the Walk Bridge. This gives the state the right to ignore the city, Norwalk Center Task Force Chairwoman Jackie Lightfield said.

“There is a group trying to stop the project, period,” Department of Public Works Director Bruce Chimento said to the Norwalk Center Task Force, before the Council members came in to use the room. “… They are very vocal.”

About 35 people came into the room after that meeting to attend the Public Works meeting. First up to speak was Diane Cece, who asked for a show of hands, of people against the project. At least 20 hands raised.

No comments over three minutes, Public Works Committee Chairman John Igneri (D-District E) said.

First, Cece gave an historic overview, saying that the East Avenue work had first been talked about 20 years ago. The Council in 2011 mandated that public comment be involved in any work, but “significant changes” have been made “made in a vacuum,” she said.

The committee tabled a $30,000 East Avenue traffic study last month because there hadn’t been any public input, Cece said. Yet the committee was now considering a much larger contract, one that would ultimately include design plans, without public input, she said.

“Vote no or at least table this unless there is communication with the public on the scope of the changes,” she said.

Igneri cut her off after five minutes – two over the limit.

“I am not privy to the details of what is going on with this, but from what I hear, what I read in NancyOnNorwalk and other places, I smell the state DOT doing their stiff-arm act,” Gordon Tully said.

For perspective, read a “little book that is out there” about the building of the Merritt Parkway, he said.

“The DOT is designed to build; that’s what they do for a living,” Tully said. “They really don’t understand. I know they presumably reformed to some extent, but they don’t understand some really basic things about urban design. IIn the background I hear them saying, ‘OK, I am are going to stuff this down your throat because the Walk Bridge has to be done and we have to move ahead.’ This is something that just has to be resisted, and if we don’t resist, the DOT is going to be all over us and we don’t have a leg to stand on.”

The Council in 2011 voted down the rights of way that permit the property easements involved in the work, Goldstein said. Yet land is being taken.

She theatrically shredded the plans that were last shown to the public, five years ago, saying that a third of them have since changed.

East Norwalk resident Sarah Hunter communicates with members of the Norwalk Common Council Public Works Committee meeting Tuesday in City Hall.

East Norwalk resident Sarah Hunter communicates with members of the Norwalk Common Council Public Works Committee meeting Tuesday in City Hall. She refers to a less-than standard height railroad bridge in Darien; Department of Public Works Director Bruce Chimento said the height of the Darien bridge is constrained by drainage concerns.

There was a meeting Dec. 7 in which Mayor Harry Rilling said the project should be delayed to give the community time to think about it, Sarah Hunter said.

The project is “not well thought out,” said a woman who identified herself as a professional engineer.

The existing bridge is made of brownstone and an effort should be made to salvage that historic material and reuse it in the new bridge, Todd Bryant said.

Jim Anderson said he hadn’t planned to speak up, but “some really good points” had been made and, “I really would recommend that you delay this.” Surely the lowering of the roadway would bring more trucks down Van Zant Street, he said.

Cece and Goldstein both attempted to chime in during the ensuing Council Committee discussion. Igneri would not allow it.

Chimento said there are really two projects involved: the state’s rebuilding of the railroad bridge and the city’s desire for street-scaping. The state will do the bridge no matter what, he said. The proposed lowering of the road beneath the bridge provides less clearance than what the federal government requires, but the 14.2-foot clearance is the maximum that can be done because of drainage concerns, he said.

If a truck hits that bridge it puts the railroad tracks out of commission, as inspectors must examine the structure for potential damage, Chimento said.

The bridge work is going to be done no matter what, he said. “Anything you do tonight is not going to have any impact on that project,” he said.

The city is trying to change the plans to create three lanes under the bridge across the 58-foot width so there will be room for bike lanes, he said.

“We don’t know if that’s possible. … We need to do a traffic study for that entire area,” Chimento said.

“We are hearing it’s a done deal, we’re going to have trucks getting off 16, going under the railroad, up Winfield to beat one exit,” Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) said.

No, Chimento said. “They won’t be able to get under it.”

Rilling did say, “Let’s put the brakes on” the project recently, Councilwoman Michelle Maggio (R-District C) said.

“Everyone at that table agreed that public input was essential before the plan went any further,” Maggio said. “That came out of the mayor’s mouth. So when I read this agenda I felt foolish. I am on the Common Council and I didn’t know myself this stuff was happening. Last I knew we were going to wait.”

Bonenfant and Maggio asked for a public presentation. Chimento said the contract with DiCesare would make that possible. Arthur DiCesare said the plans he would submit at the end of January are the existing plans. The work would go from there.

Norwalk Common Council Public Works Committee Chairman John Igneri (D-District E) leads Tuesday's meeting in City Hall.

Norwalk Common Council Public Works Committee Chairman John Igneri (D-District E) leads Tuesday’s meeting in City Hall.

Igneri said that “not too long ago” he felt bullied when the state insisted that the Rowayton railroad bridge be done to its specifications. Still, he and other people were able to tweak the work to make it more aesthetically pleasing, he said. “It’s not as bad as I thought it was going to turn out.”

It’s possible the East Norwalk folks will have the same success, he said.

But, he cautioned, the city would miss an April deadline tied to the project if the contract isn’t approved in January.

“A month ago, we tabled a $39,000 traffic study; tonight we’re looking at 10 times it,” Bonenfant said, asking why didn’t they just authorize the previous idea.

What changed, according to DiCesare, was a decision made in mid-December to combine all the projects – the Osborne Avenue Bridge, the East Avenue work, the Fort Point Street bridge and the Walk Bridge. ConnDOT, at that meeting, laid out a time schedule. The scope of the work expanded exponentially.

“Are you saying that in December the state dictated what this timetable was?” Councilman Michael Corsello (D-At Large) asked.

“It’s not so much dictating; they said what the timetable was,” DiCesare said.

That prompted laughter.

The meeting did not include the city, Lisa Burns said.

Rilling has asked the state to come down and do a public hearing on just East Avenue, Chimento said. Chimento asked in person, and was told no, he said. Rilling asked Chimento to ask again, and DPW staff at a meeting pulled aside a state official and asked if a public hearing could be had. That official emailed higher ups; Chimento emailed them and has not heard anything back, he said.

“The state has refused me twice. They don’t feel that there is any other public input required on their part,” Chimento said.

Council members voted to recess and asked the public to leave the room so they could discuss it. Not an executive session, they said. Most people left the room.

When the meeting resumed, Igneri apologized for the recess and said the Council would table the item, have a meeting with an information session.

“We will look at where we are, how we got here and where we are going to go … and we will try to get the state here at the same time,” he said.

That was approved unanimously.

“It gives us time for the public to figure out what they want to do,” Goldstein said on her way out the door. “… The state has already declined to give us any public hearing, so I am not sure the Common Council can compel them.”

5 comments

Oldtimer January 6, 2016 at 10:34 am

The DOT can be expected to do exactly what they did in Rowayton. We will find they are willing to pay part of the cost, but only if the City signs off by a certain date which will not leave time for further hearings. They convinced a lot of people that any further delay would cost the City $270,000,000. That number is my best recollection and may not be accurate. I never heard if the DOT ever really paid that much into the Rowayton project, also involving increasing the clearance under a RR bridge.

New-in-town January 6, 2016 at 12:37 pm

Regardless of the necessity of these projects, is anyone in the city paying attention to the ramifications of Walk bridge, East Ave bridge, Osborne & Ft Point bridge replacements as well as I-95 Yankee Doodle? repair work and SoNo Collection, the new mall, all being constructed at the same time? All of the restaurants/businesses in SoNo will be put out of business by the traffic jams and that is on top of the closing of businesses for the Walk Bridge replacement. This is a disaster for East and South Norwalk.

EastAver January 6, 2016 at 5:20 pm

It is understood that the bridge needs to be widened. I don’t think any one that has ever ridden on Metro-North doubts that. More train capacity not only means less standing all the way to Grand Central Terminal during peak periods; it also means, in turn, hopefully, if one is feeling optimistic at the moment, less traffic on the highway! Who can say no to that! So I think we all agree that the train bridge needs to be widened, and will be widened. Good! Great! Where I think the issue lies, plainly and simply, is with the height of the bridge when all of this is done.

Right now our little top peeler does its mighty little and fantastic job of keeping the march of unwanted ‘progress’ by way of Tractor Trailer Truck Traffic, out of our streets, away from our children, out of our traffic, and their bellowing stacks from laying upon our little forward thinking community a scratchy blanket of cancerous fumes.

And by god does it work. And we want it to keep working! We like it that way! If it were not for our little trailer flayer and its diligence we would have a mob of Tractor Trailer Truck Traffic run ram shod straight through past Pennies, banging a left under Bridge #03691R (or as I like to call it, Cap’n), and speeding their way up Rt. 136 / Winfield St. Which, as it stands now, is a lovely little corridor, if not already terrifying to walkers, joggers, and cyclists, to our friends in Westport. Tractor Trailer Truck Traffic would stream through like an already leaky tent in a rainstorm — almost unimpeded if it were not for the additionally proposed light that has also been suggested at Fort Point to stop them (and bunch them up.) Ruining any chance we have at making our little 3rdTD a more walkable, bikeable, and human and pet oriented area that will help the community, and everyone around us, grow.

So, I believe that this can be boiled down to one point: Don’t lower the roadway anymore than it needs to be lowered. If the MTA only needs 1ft to complete the work, then only lower the roadway 1ft. Tractor Trailer Trucks are 13’8″ as a standard. The bridge now stands at 12’2″. So we’re looking at 13’2”, which is good enough to keep the big boys out of here, while allowing our beloved PeaPod deliveries to be made.

Gordon Tully January 6, 2016 at 8:52 pm

What struck me at the meeting, as it did with regard to the mall, is how little the public understands about the design process, and how much developers and the state DOT take advantage of this lack of understanding.

Engineering design, even more than architectural design, takes place in discrete stages. The conceptual stage, when really major changes can occur often happens years, even decades, before the serious design work begins. The DOT does a detailed sketch design to determine feasibility and to set down its intentions, and there is public input at this initial stage.

Then the project sits in the drawer until someone comes up with funding. As far as the DOT is concerned, public input on the basics of the design was completed long ago, but conditions and the people involved change (Councillor Melendez noted that she was 3 years old when the project was first announced). This is where the conflicts arise between the DOT and the public. The public is blind-sided, and the DOT firmly believes it has done its due diligence. For the DOT, it was decided long ago that the bridge will be 58 feet wide and 14′-2″ high, so let’s move on.

Ideally, the DOT would hold yet another public hearing before proceeding with the detailed design, to brief the public and avoid a lot of tumult and shouting. In this case they are in a panic. It makes very good sense to combine the several bridge projects, to coordinate and schedule the work in a logical way that minimizes inconvenience to the public and maximizes economy and efficiency.

In addition, coordinating the railroad-related projects means that the line will be closed down to 2 tracks for a shorter time. The 2-track setup will cause serious delays for thousands of people every day. Combining the projects is a no-brainer.

It seems to me there are two approaches the Mayor and Council can take with regard to the dimensions of the bridge. The less attractive one is to pull the bridge project loose from the larger package and go back to the initial design phase, fight the Federal DOT about the road clearance (with dubious chances of success), and hope that the delay doesn’t mess up the coordination of the several projects. This approach would be political suicide, especially for the Democrats.

The better course is to accept the basic dimensions of the bridge and move on to the important details – 4 lanes versus 3 plus bike lanes, aesthetic treatment, landscaping, traffic lights, infrastructure design, etc. I think almost everyone is on board with this approach.

I have no opinion about whether to limit this contract to the bridge and immediate surroundings or to include the more extensive work on East Avenue. I thought I heard that combining the two East Avenue-related projects would save the city $2 million.

These seems to me the basic issues that concern the public – the design details, and whether to combine the two East Avenue projects. I think most of the East Norwalkers are clear on this point. I therefore would recommend approving the DiCesare contract, since the public will have 5 chances to review the detailed design as it develops, and indeed time is of the essence.

Let me add that after decades of bitter complaints about the lack of progress on various projects, things are at last moving ahead. Now we hear bitter complaints about too many things going on at once. Hey folks, that’s what happens in the construction industry – it’s boom and bust, construction is at the whip end of economic swings. Let’s hope it doesn’t bust before we get some of these projects finished.

Gordon Tully January 6, 2016 at 9:40 pm

At the risk of hogging the discussion, let me comment on traffic.
First, traffic studies are not very useful because, as in weather forecasting, small changes in initial assumptions produce large changes in the outcome.

Second, traffic is going to increase on East Avenue, no matter what happens to the railroad bridge. There are plenty of trucks that can fit under the existing bridge, even some semis. The big change in truck traffic will occur when the deep truss bridge that divides the Aquarium is raised so more trucks can use North Water Street to access the Stoffolino Bridge.

The mall is going to generate a lot of traffic at all times of day and evening. It won’t long before shoppers learn that they can avoid the jams on West Avenue by using North Water Street to get to East Avenue, and vice versa. As the engineer mentioned on Tuesday, the damage was done long ago, when it was decided to redevelop on the Reed-Putnam site. East Norwalkers have been spared the consequences of that decision because the site is only now being developed.

In my opinion, trying to keep traffic off East Avenue is not going to work. Rather, we should insist that really smart traffic controls coupled with cameras be installed throughout the center of Norwalk, as the effects of the mall traffic cascade throughout the area.

The mall developer should be responsible for the cost of smart traffic control anywhere in the city including Route 1 and throughout SoNo, not just in the area immediately around the mall. If the state “can’t afford” smart controls on East Avenue, make the mall developers pay for them.

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