NORWALK, Conn. – East Norwalk residents got their chance to query state officials Thursday about a project they have long abhorred.
The upshot after two hours of sometimes contentious give and take? Opponents of the state’s plan to lower East Avenue under the railroad bridge were given another two weeks to pressure state officials in an effort to preserve what one resident called a “big rig repellent.”
Video of meeting at end of story
Members of the Common Council Public Works Committee again tabled the approval of a $359,000 contract with A. DiCesare Associates for preliminary work to prepare for the project.
“You’ve made some points. We feel that if you want to try, the next two or three weeks, to change the state’s mind – go right ahead,” Committee Chairman John Igneri (D-District E) said, garnering applause from many of the more than 50 people in the room.
Questioners brought up points that included:
- The Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) is insisting that the East Norwalk railroad gets a 14-foot, 3-inch clearance when it made do with 11 feet, 3 inches of clearance when it recently rebuilt the Darien railroad bridge
- ConnDOT should be using the traffic study being done by General Growth Partners (GGP) for its proposed SoNo mall
- The rising sea level would make drainage plans invalid
- Residents don’t want a traffic light at Fort Point Street
- The state is saying it needs to lower the roadway to prevent trucks from hitting the bridge, but the state has not taken simple, cheap measures to warn truck drivers
- It would be much cheaper to just keep the railroad bridge over the Norwalk River – the Walk Bridge – fixed in place
A key factor expressed in response: The state is doing its railroad bridge work no matter what the city does. If the contract for DiCesare is not approved, the state will go ahead with its lowering project.
The meeting was arranged after East Norwalk made a strong showing at the last Public Works Committee meeting, complaining that there has been no public hearing on the project since 2011. Council members succeeded in getting six state officials to face the public. The size of the crowd prompted Igneri to move it from the room that had been scheduled to the Council chambers next door.
Igneri called began by calling it a “special information meeting,” not a public hearing, then sought at times, with limited success, to keep it from becoming a debate.
Norwalk Department of Public Works Operations Manager Lisa Burns began the presentation with an attempt to refute issues that have been brought up by opponents. The plans have not changed since 2010, she said. Although there is a diagram showing a parking lot at the corner of Fort Point Street, that’s just a concept, and has not been incorporated into the plan, she said.
The work proposed for DiCesare includes updating existing information to a format consistent with that being used in the Walk Bridge project, which is driving the push to do East Avenue sooner rather than later. It also includes updating a traffic study from 1997 to prepare for work that the city wants to do in conjunction with the railroad work.
“There’s definitely a need for a traffic signal at Fort Point,” Burns said. “There’s been a fatality at that location from crossing.”
The traffic study will help the city decide if it can remove the traffic signal at Raymond Street, which has become one way since the last study, she said.
The project limits might move south, as the work planned for the Myrtle Street end would be done in conjunction with work expected on Exit 16, she said.
“We want to know what is looming out there now for us that is going to impact the rest of the road,” Diane Cece retorted later. “… I want to make sure that my neighbors and my friends understand what you are about to do to us, not for us.”
Burns wasn’t the only one getting pushback.
ConnDOT engineer Hugh Hayward said he understood that tractor-trailers already go down East Avenue, turning onto Fort Point Street.
“From our perspective Fort Point Road is a residential area, slash commercial,” Hayward said. “Trucks really don’t belong in that area. It’s a locally classified roadway where East Avenue is what’s known as a principal arterial roadway that should be handling the truck traffic versus going around through a residential area.”
Sarah Hunter said she disagreed – East Avenue is not for tractor trailers; it’s a walkable road, she said.
“The clearance of that bridge serves as a big-rig repellent,” she said. “Trucks don’t come down there because they know they’re going to hit it.”
“You are going to give us a 3-foot grassy strip that should make us feel a little bit better walking next to 18-wheelers. You are going to allow them and attract them,” Hunter said. “… We like to walk down to the train station. The property value for homeowners who can walk to the train station is going to plummet if it is a really unappealing walk.”
Westport and Darien prevent bridge strikes with signage, she said.
“Why in God’s name can’t you make it just enough, 13.7, so big rigs can’t go through there, and signage it, signage the living daylights out of it like they did in Darien?” Hunter asked.
That question was not answered, nor was Peter Libre’s suggestion that the state put up lazers to trigger warnings for truck drivers, as Darien is planning.
If the state were really concerned about truck strikes it could have done cheap things years ago, he said.
Libre said the sea temperatures are rising, which will result in more rain, overwhelming drainage efforts.
The project “will be designed with ConnDOT the drainage manual, which is anticipating different frequencies based on global warming,” Julie Georges of A. DiCesare Associates said.
Pat Vandecamp asked if the state had considered “sealing” the Walk Bridge instead of spending millions to replace it.
“All I can say is we evaluated a lot of other alternatives and the best alternative at this point is to replace the bridge,” Walk Bridge principal engineer Gregory Dorosh said.
Dorosh said, in response to the mall traffic study question from Diane Lauricella, that the state is aware of the mall. A meeting was held as recently as last week and the state is working with DPW to identify all the projects going on at once, he said.
“We are going to try to figure out how we are going to address that,” Dorosh said.
The Stroffolino Bridge is expected to be worked on in 2017. “It’s a relatively small project,” ConnDOT engineer Robert Brown said, predicting it will be done in the fall, before the massive Walk Bridge project begins in 2018.
Third Taxing District Commissioner Deb Goldstein was among those asking about Darien’s bridge.
“Why has no one responded to the fact that nobody in the neighborhood actually wants the roadway lowered?” she asked.
“Why are you telling us that you have to do it this way?” Cece said. “We want to understand why. Tell us why you can’t do just enough for the catenary work and the bridge work.”
“You are misinterpreting Darien,” Brown replied. “… In the case of Darien, the water elevation is such that you can’t lower that roadway any farther than it is now. That is the restriction there. You had two things going on, and you also had the proximity of the roads coming in.”
“We have a responsibility to the people that use Metro North and the safety of the people that are using the trains,” Hayward said. “Each location is very specific as Bob just pointed out. … Where we can get the clearance it is incumbent on us to strive to do that for the safety of the general public.”
Cece said people were begging.
At every opportunity people have come out to say, “’Please don’t do this,’ and then you do it,” she said.
“This project has, without fail, just progressed along regardless of what the residents have wanted,” John Maggio said.
“I am very saddened by this whole project,” Anthony Rossi said. “First of all, we are zoned neighborhood business – neighborhood. Turning East Avenue into Connecticut Avenue, Boston Post Road, is going against everything that little neighborhood has. You can’t cross the street now. In every study I have read, every traffic study says when you increase the lanes and widen the streets you increase speeding. … I am very surprised and saddened about all of you.”
“I might as well sit in my house and work from home because I’m only going to be able to get out of my road, just to let you know how the traffic is going to effect the neighborhood that is East Norwalk,” said Kevin Siciliano, an Olmstead Place resident.
“We have heard you loud and clear,” Igneri said, closing the evening. “I hope you have heard loud and clear that we have no control over the bridge. It’s going to be done.”
The city is just looking to do a traffic study so that traffic can flow better for the residents, he said.
“What we are looking at here has nothing to do with the bridge,” Igneri said.
The contract will be voted on in February, he said.
“It is not up to this Council whether or not the clearance gets made larger,” Councilman Michael Corsello (D-At Large) said. “That decision has been made already, it has been made somewhere else, but hopefully it can be reversed. I encourage everybody to take this time, that we are tabling it, to contact your state legislators. We have heard loud and clear. We will do what we can on our end.”
If the state is going ahead, he will vote to approve the contract, he said.
“It’s not a done deal. We just have to articulate why there is alternatives,” Lauricella said after the meeting.
Hunter had suggested 13-feet, 7 inches.
“It is an alternative,” Lauricella said. “It’s just I believe that the well-meaning, new Council members have been kind of misinformed about the fact that they do have options.”