Updated, 1:11 p.m., video added.
NORWALK, Conn. – The debate over lowering East Avenue continues, but a majority of Norwalk Common Council members are offering support for residents who say it will bring more tractor trailers their way.
The Council, in a surprise move Tuesday evening, voted to send a message to the Connecticut Department of Transportation with a resolution calling for a 13-foot, 6-inch clearance for the proposed railroad bridge work, as opposed to the 14-foot, 3-inch clearance now planned. The one opposing voice was Council President Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large), whose comments inspired a late night-rebuttal sent to NancyOnNorwalk from Third Taxing District Commissioner Deb Goldstein.
“I think if Councilman Kimmel were to look more closely at this project, he would come around,” Goldstein said in an email.
(Video of Council conversation at end of story.)
Kimmel said he wasn’t sure a tractor trailer could get off of Interstate 95 at Exit 16 because the road there is narrow and congested, and there are a series of lights; Goldstein sent a photo of a tractor trailer on East Avenue.
The resolution stems from last week’s well-attended Public Works Committee meeting on the plans for East Avenue, which featured six ConnDOT officials answering sometimes testy questions. (A video of the entire meeting is here.) There was nothing on the agenda for Tuesday’s Council meeting regarding the topic, but, minutes from an expected adjournment, Majority Leader John Kydes (D-District C) made a motion to “suspend the rules” and introduce a resolution, and the Council voted unanimously to do just that.
The situation is a little muddy because the issue in front of the Council concerns a traffic study for East Avenue, along with design work for ConnDOT, which is separate from ConnDOT’s intention to lower the roadway when it rebuilds the bridge. Kydes made sure to delineate that separation when he introduced the resolution, and others followed in making sure that was understood.
“I believe that we should advocate to the D.O.T. to perhaps (reconsider) the lowering of the roadway, because I can tell you right now there’s a lot more residents who want to see the project stopped versus wanting it to proceed,” Kydes said.
Councilwoman Michelle Maggio (R-District C), co-owner of an East Avenue business, said she welcomed the idea of a resolution from Kydes, and called it a “nice compromise.”
“I was pushing for a little stricter requirements, maybe having more help from our state reps and our state senator and maybe putting a little more pressure on Hartford,” Maggio said.
Maggio and Kydes both mentioned working on the bridge project for two years. Former Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord and former Principal Engineer Dick Linnartz had said trucks would not get off at Exit 16 because Exit 15 provided a more attractive truck route up North Water Street, Maggio said. But that route has speed bumps and two-lane traffic, making Exit 16 more attractive, she said.
“We have been told numerous times by a lot of people that the Department of Transportation will do exactly what they want to on East Avenue as far as the railroad bridge is concerned. However, I think that is where we live and the D.O.T. needs to pay attention to what we want,” Maggio said.
Kimmel said the traffic study is critical and should be supported. But he was against the resolution, he said.
“The notion that there will be increased truck traffic on East Avenue is at this point is based on speculation, ‘maybe, maybe not,’” Kimmel said. “Secondly, although I did not agree with Hal Alvord on many issues, anyone who gets off on 16 … (knows) that is pretty difficult for a truck, and I am not even sure that a tractor-trailer or an 18-wheeler could even do it, to be honest with you.”
East Norwalkers who attended last week’s meeting talked about the residential nature of their neighborhood, and the inappropriateness of big rigs coming through. Kimmel said that bothered him a little.
“If indeed a truck can’t get under the bridge, the railroad bridge after it is reconfigured, that means it will have to make a right on either St. John, Osborne or Fort Point and just go around on Osborne and come back over on either probably Van Zant or Rowan or right into South Norwalk, which is easier to do in my opinion if you go right on Fort Point,” Kimmel said.
Those are “primarily residential neighbor, more housing than commercial establishments,” Kimmel said.
“Those streets are much easier to navigate than getting off Exit 16 with trucks that large, I can tell you that pretty much for sure. So I have some reservations about creating a situation where it’s going to add trucks to a residential neighborhood,” Kimmel said.
ConnDOT brings up thoughts about the comic strip “Dilbert,” Kimmel said.
“You have certain similarities there. You have a big pot of money, you have to figure out how to spend it, whether a project is necessary or not. You have to spend the money and that may be somewhat the case here,” Kimmel said.
But the area around the train station and “that section of East Avenue” are not residential, he said.
Maggio said that Kimmel’s comments made her more supportive of the traffic study because a person cannot know how traffic affects a neighborhood by just driving through it at random. Kimmel replied with concerns about safety for commuters using the train station.
“I am sure we all realize we do have a dangerous situation with that bridge, even (with commuters) just crossing the street,” Kimmel said.
From personal experience, he knows that it’s nearly impossible to walk under that bridge during a snowstorm without getting soaking wet, he said.
“There are hundreds of people, possibly more, who depend on East Avenue to get to that train station in a safe manner. So let’s not forget that we are dealing with a big part of the city’s population, just like with the Rowayton station,” Kimmel said. “…Lots of people are down there every single morning and every single evening and their safety is paramount.”
“Everything I am hearing just reinforces my belief that we don’t need more trucks going down East Avenue,” Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) said.
Currently, the only way large trucks can get to the leaf dump site and tankers can get to the wastewater treatment plant is to go down Fort Point Street, Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said. Garbage trucks also go that way, he said.
“It’s not highly used; it’s not convenient, that’s for sure, and I think opening up East Avenue bridge makes it a little more convenient for trucks to get down there, which may bring more trucks,” Hempstead said.
Kimmel voted no; Public Works Committee Chairman John Igneri (D-District E) abstained.
Igneri had called the issue “ironic,” given the intense situation a few years ago with the Rowayton train station and the road lowering there.
The state will do what the state will do, and will not change its plans, he said.
“I therefore think we should focus on the engineering study that is coming before the Council in the next couple of weeks. It’s very important that we understand the traffic that we are talking about. We have not had a traffic study in a long time,” Igneri said.
Councilman Steve Serasis (D-District A) protested that a traffic study had been done when he was on the Council in 2009. Maggio said she had learned that the Council in 2009 was given traffic counts, not a study.
“We had a thick packet, that’s all it was?” Serasis said.
The last traffic study was done in 1997, according to DPW.
Supporting the traffic study is important “to make sure we make the best of what may be a very bad situation,” Councilman Thomas Livingston (D-District E) said.
Igneri said after the meeting that he abstained because, as chairman of the Public Works Committee, he “didn’t want the state to believe we are against the bridge. We are for the bridge but we are concerned about the height.”
“Going forward, I think the bigger issue is we can make East Avenue into a very nice community neighborhood. It can look like a village,” he said. The situation on East Avenue now, with alternating turn lanes, is “silly” and the study would address that and the possible overabundance of traffic lights, which might help the small business people there, he said.
“This resolution is encouraging as a sign that the Council is prepared to assist us in making the case to state legislators and other powers-that-be,” Goldstein said later. “The sooner the Connecticut DOT folks start focusing on how to implement the change instead of telling us why it can’t be done, the better it will be for everyone. It is my hope that our state office-holders are as much in our corner as our local officials are, so we can stop arguing with a piece of paper and move ahead with all the beneficial improvements of this and the WALK bridge projects.”
In response to Kimmel, she said, “I believe Fort Point is semi-industrial, not residential.”
“Having a truck-friendly route from Exit 15 does not stop these monsters from exiting at 16 and coming through now. … Rolling out the welcome wagon to larger trucks will just increase the traffic down the alternatives to avoid the lights,” Goldstein said. “Truckers don’t make decisions about exiting the highway based upon the difficulty of the turns they can’t know about, they follow their GPS units to avoid jams and then find themselves in these situations.”