NORWALK, Conn. — Devastating and irreversible cuts to Connecticut’s public transit system are on the way if the state doesn’t fix the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s funding troubles, according to James Redeker.
“We will not be able to sustain state of good repair on our highways, bridges or rail systems,” said Redeker, ConnDOT Commissioner, last week in City Hall.
Redeker spoke at a two hour-long public forum presented by Norwalk’s Republican state legislative contingent, and responded to audience dissatisfaction with potential bus service cuts and aspects of the Walk Bridge project. Redeker also expressed doubts regarding the likelihood of a possible Wall Street train station.
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story, of the entire meeting.
The Norwalk forum was just the latest in a tour Redeker is making around the state, pleading ConnDOT’s case in light of the state budget, said State Rep. Fred Wilms (R-142), who ran the meeting. About 50 citizens, many of them angry, attended the meeting in the Common Council chambers.
ConnDOT’s largest expense is debt service for the last 20 years of borrowing, Redeker said, explaining that he was forced to sell $800 million in bonds because the department owed $1 billion in contractual obligations and he had no way to pay for it.
“We had to figure out how to rebalance the transportation fund without additional revenues,” he said, explaining that there aren’t enough that can be cut to balance the shortfalls.
ConnDOT has 164 vacancies in its staff and 81 people eligible for retirement this year, he said.
“Department after department we are at the brink of failure because of these cuts,” he said. “…This level of staffing, if it doesn’t get replaced, will impact forever our ability to plow snow in a timely fashion and will affect the highway maintenance conditions.”
“I will have no legal counsel in two weeks, my IT program has no manager, the Affirmative Action program … completely vacant. So this is the impact of what’s happening because of budget cuts within the DOT. That’s a story of woe but what’s really worse is what is coming,” he said.
“I told you that by budget has several components. The biggest part, 62% of my budget at DOT, is to pay for subsidy to operate trains and buses,” he said, going on to explain proposals that would take effect July 1:
- 14.3 percent bus fare increase
- Elimination of non-ADA bus service
- A 10 percent rail fare increase, the first phase of a 21.2 percent increase
- Elimination of weekend and off-peak rail service on branch lines
The bus fare subsidies cuts “are massive, impactful and horrifying,” he said, and, “for many people, many of you in the room perhaps, this could mean no service, this could mean no jobs, this could mean no school, this could mean no medical appointments.”
“Frankly, I come from a transit background. This hurts to watch this. If these have to get done because we can’t fix the transportation fund income, these will reverse decades in investments in bus and rail, improvements, great service, and frankly, a system that you can see from the beginning, I am proud of and the state should be very proud of. But these cuts would be devastating and frankly irreversible if we don’t find a solution,” he said.
“I am advocating for transportation revenue to fix the problems as opposed to cuts,” Redeker said.
Anger about possible bus service cuts
Norwalk Community College student Andre DeNunzio was one of the first audience members to speak. “I don’t know how you guys can live with yourself if you guys are cutting out ADA service (on buses),” he said.
“None of the bus service cuts … are proposals that I would ever make if I didn’t have to sell bonds to pay bills,” Redeker replied.
“I cannot imagine a world where increased fares and reduced service make sense,” State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) said. “They just don’t.”
An immediate solution is needed right away, she said, expressing support for dedicating car sales tax to transportation. Wilms said proposed transit cuts are unacceptable and called the car sales tax move a “straightforward solution.”
State Rep. Terri Wood (R-141) said that she very much likes a plan developed by the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth, which includes a proposal to raise the gas tax and work toward electronic tolls as a solution to transportation funding.
There were two more comments about bus service, with Sheldon Green saying the elimination of a bus route would “absolutely maroon” the seniors in Broad River Homes and a Norwalk Community College student complaining that students won’t be able to get to night events under the threatened cuts.
John Cohen of Norwalk Harbor Keeper, a group that is suing ConnDOT over its plan to build a new lift Walk Bridge, said it’s time to rethink the bridge with a “full evaluation” of the alternatives for a new railroad bridge over the Norwalk River, which would put much of the $1.1 billion planned for a lift bridge back into the transportation fund.
Norwalk Harbor Keeper has said that ConnDOT failed to consider a fixed bridge as a replacement for the current swing bridge. Many have argued that there isn’t enough boat traffic to justify the added expense of a movable bridge.
“We believe we have done a sufficient and comprehensive look at alternatives. You may have a different opinion,” Redeker said. Wilms pressed, asking why ConnDOT feels it has to maintain access for boat traffic to the upper river when the area is gentrifying and industrial uses are being phased out.
It’s federally designated as a navigable waterway, and, “We abide by federal law,” Redeker replied.
A lift bridge costs only 11 percent more than a fixed bridge, Redeker added. “Is it really worth shutting off all future maritime uses whatever they may be… for a 11 percent differential?” he asked.
Robin Penna asked if the 11 percent included the demolition of the Maritime Aquarium’s IMAX Theater and the cost of impact to the Aquarium’s animals.
Environmental assessments were done separately from assessments of construction costs, Redeker replied.
Local activist Peter Libre said that ConnDOT hasn’t adequately considered low-profile tug boats to move barges under the bridge. He argued that the U.S. Coast Guard can change the river’s designation, noting that he counted just 13 sail boats upriver from the bridge.
Sail boats have tall masts which, out of all marine traffic, require the highest clearance.
U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Greenwich) offered to seek a designation switch, Libre said, calling ConnDOT’s actions “patently disrespectful of the taxpayers.”
“We have done an evaluation, engineering studies and cost benefits,” Redeker said. “It’s public record. Obviously, there’s disagreement. We have made decisions based on that, we intend to move forward. If we are stopped by a lawsuit, we’ll stop…. One thing is very clear, that seems to be ignored: you cannot fix the current bridge. It has to be replaced.”
ConnDOT has checked the cost benefit analysis more than once, and, “Obviously, you don’t believe it. But I’m not going to change (the analysis) because we’ve checked it, and we’ve checked it and we’ve checked it,” he said.
Wilms pressed for an explanation on the recertification of the federal waterway, asking who would ask for that.
“If it were something that we decided was in our interest and the future of transportation, we might do that,” Redeker said. “Our evaluation says it’s not worth the cost differential for what the potential loss of federal navigable waterway is for this purpose.”
Joe Schnierlein said that ConnDOT’s Environmental Impact Statement leaves out much of the Norwalk River’s wildlife, and that ConnDOT had just cut and pasted Long Island Sound information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
There’s no recommendation to minimize side effects and, “even a simple net stretched across the river during demolition time would minimize the impact,” he said, speculating that ConnDOT could close down the entire Norwalk waterfront and that would hurt local families who depend on fishing for food.
Redeker asked Schnierlein for his list of species in the river.
Later in the meeting another question on the Walk Bridge drew this response from Redeker: ““The current bridge cannot be repaired and sustained, and it can’t be maintained in any cost-effective way,” he said. “It can’t be maintained as a fixed span without spending almost as much money as a lift bridge. That’s all the alternatives that were put out there and after years of extensive study we have made a conclusion and we’re going to stick with it for now.”
Other concerns included highway chokepoints and troublesome intersections, with Libre and another man alleging that $3 million is being wasted on work at East Avenue and Route 1 as $10,000 in paint to add a turn lane would get the needed changes made.
“We don’t have any paint this year, it was taken out of the budget,” Redeker said. “There’s no paint, that’s how bad it is.”
After the meeting thoughts
There was no sign-up sheet for speakers, Democratic activist Mike Mushak said after the meeting, alleging that Republicans “obviously had a plan ahead of time to hand-pick speakers who they knew would support their positions on a wide range of topics.”
Wilms ignored a late meeting suggestion from Woods that he choose Mushak to ask a question.
“As several handicapped speakers around me struggled to keep their arms raised the entire meeting, our supposed representatives allowed folks who they obviously knew and had arranged to speak ahead of time to go on for up to 10 minutes, as other folks just shouted out their comments without being called upon, as more polite folks waited as their arms grew cramped,” Mushak said, who expressed support for tolls as road congestion costs him a lot of money
Joe Fordea, who said he’s suffering from Parkinson’s disease, had his hand up and did not get to ask a question.
“They seem to have their agenda done. They knew who they were going to pick to speak,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair what they did.”
Asked about Mushak’s complaint, House GOP spokesperson Rick Josyln denied any cherry-picking of questions. “The representatives from (DOT) have held several forums like this one across the state these past few months, and they treat it as an informal listening session where attendees can discuss these issues freely with them. They have never had any complaints like (Mushak’s)”.
Harbor Watch members were “deeply disappointed” in Redeker’s response to their Walk Bridge objections, Cohen said.
“It’s clear that they have made up their mind at DOT and Commissioner Redeker has made up his mind to stick with a bad plan, to spend over $1.1 billion on a Walk Bridge that features a lift mechanism when they could be looking at much less expensive, less costly, less disruptive alternatives. They refuse to do it,” Cohen said.
“They claim that the river has to be maintained as navigable by federal law, but even Rep. Jim Himes has offered to have congress modify the status of the Norwalk river because tall ships don’t go up that river anymore. The fact that the Commissioner is unwilling to look at the reality of how the river is used and is digging in his heels on an expensive and disruptive plan, is deeply disappointing and indeed an insult to the taxpayers of Connecticut and the citizens of Norwalk.”