Updated, 10:53 p.m. Friday: PDF added.
NORWALK, Conn. — State DOT officials were on hand Wednesday evening to give Norwalk residents an update and present two alternatives being considered for the Route7-15 project, which will complete the interchanges between Route 7 and the Merritt Parkway.
“Tonight is not about ‘we like this one better than that one’,” said Principal Engineer John Eberle. Rather, he said, it’s about the fact that we have two alternatives now.
Project gained new life in 2016
Nearly two years to the day since the last public information meeting, ConnDOT (Connecticut Department of Transportation) engineer Mike Calabrese provided an overview of the history and purpose of the project. Originally conceived in the early 2000s, the project was halted by a lawsuit in 2006. In 2008-9, a stakeholder’s group including a range of Norwalk residents was formed and came to consensus on a design known as alternative 21C. “The ironic part is that once we figured out what we wanted to do, there was no money to do it. So, the project was stalled for about seven years,” noted Calabrese.
In 2016, the project received funding again, and, rather than move forward with a decade-old design, the project team again reached out to the community – between 40 and 50 groups – to gather input. This Project Advisory Committee (PAC) has held 8 meetings between 2017-2019, and serves as a liaison between the DOT and the Norwalk community.
Narrowing down the alternatives
Calebrese pointed out that the main purpose of the project is to complete the interchange at exit 39, enabling connections between Route 7 and the Merritt Parkway in all directions.
Between Spring and Fall 2018, the PAC completed Level 1 screening of the project, identifying “purpose and need.” John Eberle, Principle Engineer, explained that there are three key criteria for the project: 1.) Improve the system linkage between Routes 7 and 15; 2.) Improve mobility along Main Avenue, including pedestrian and bikeways and 3.) Improve/maintain safety in the area. These are the ‘gotta haves,’ he said.
With these criteria identified, the group then looked back at the 28 alternatives that were initially considered back in the early 2000s, and four of the original designs remained viable. “We stacked up all the alternatives,” and assessed how well they met the purpose and need criteria.
“What is interesting is nearly all of the old alternatives fell out. Most of them didn’t meet [the] mobility [criteria],” he said.
Four alternatives remained. These then went through Level 2 screening, which applied 9 additional criteria, ranging from construction and maintenance costs, potential impact on the Norwalk River, construction duration, and archaeological resources impacts.
After completing the Level 2 screening process, two alternatives remain, known as 21D and 26.
Eberle pointed out that this is a high-level screening process, and that work has now started on scientifically looking at issues such as noise levels, specific environmental impact and other specific considerations.
Eberle and other official pointed to the project website, where residents can view a 3D rendering of the two design options, in addition to meeting minutes, newsletter updates and more.
Alternatives 21D vs. 26
The main difference between the two designs involve traffic flow: alternative 21D is considered ‘freeflow,’ and doesn’t include any traffic signals. This plan is derived from the original “21C” which was agreed upon by the stakeholders in the original project in 2009. Eberle pointed out that the project team was able to tweak 21C, and rather than re-name it, it became 21D.
Alternative 26 has at times been referred to as the “boulevard” option, as it involves installing traffic signals north and south on Route 7. It involves fewer bridges and less road miles, as well as two fewer Norwalk River crossings.
As both Eberle and Calebrese noted several times during their presentations, the best way to understand the options is to visit the website, which includes a 3-dimensional rendering of the two alternatives.
When, where, and how much?
Current estimates are that construction will begin in 2024. Environmental documentation is underway, assessing both alternatives’ impact on the local area.
Andy Fesenmeyer, Project Manager, closed the presentation with an overview of all ConnDOT projects currently underway in the area. He referenced current projects on Interstate-95, noting that “the 95 corridor should be in good shape by 2024.”
When asked about cost and timeline of the project, Fesenmeyer suggested that it would depend on which alternative is selected, but that it could be in the range of $100-200 million. Funding for the design and permitting phase came 80% from federal budgets and 20% from the state.
Eberle said that they were assuming it to be a three-year project.
There will be another public meeting in Spring 2020, and the team expects to pick the final alternative by next summer.