City hopes for $18.6M from feds
NORWALK, Conn. — No one was hurt when a car ran off East Avenue, right over the sidewalk and into somebody’s yard, but a local activist contends last week’s accident shows just how badly pedestrian improvements are needed in the area around the town green.
“While I was alarmed by the fact that a car could so easily and crazy/dangerously run up off East Avenue and over the sidewalk and end up on the front lawn at my neighbor’s building… I was secretly almost delighted that such an event would occur with Police fanfare / action because we have worked so hard on trying to get the City to address this particular section of the EA corridor,” Bradford Craighead wrote in an email to NancyOnNorwalk.
City officials say they’re working on pedestrian improvements in the entire city: an application for a federal grant was just submitted, asking for $18.6 million to fund “a mass implementation of safe sidewalks, crossings and trails within the prioritized corridors.” Failing that, the City would like $4.8 million for “Tier I” improvements, which would include East Avenue. Or, $1.4 million would fund improvements on West Rocks Road/France Street.
More concretely, the Common Council just approved revisions to the roadway standards design manual that lowers the minimum width of “arterial roads,” in hopes of making room for bike lanes.
A car on a lawn
The accident occurred at about 10 a.m. April 7, when a vehicle hit an East Avenue street sign at Hubbell’s Lane, according to the police report obtained from Sgt. Sofia Gulino. Two people exited the car and ran. Police found the female passenger walking on Smith Street and learned that a man matching the driver’s description was jumping over fences nearby.
The same officer who apprehended the woman found the driver in a parking lot behind Wall Street businesses, the report states. Police immediately recognized him from previous encounters. He did not have a drivers license.
Samuel Branch, born in 1998, was charged with evading responsibility, failure to maintain proper lane, driving too fast, interfering with an officer, and operating a motor vehicle without a license. Gulino said bond was $5,000. The State’s website said $10,000. He has not been released, according to the State.
Branch pled guilty to a felony drug charges in 2017 and 2019, as well as burglary in 2018, the State’s website states. The 2019 sentence was for five years in jail, suspended after two years.
Craighead, co-founder of the Norwalk Green Association, owns 96 East Ave. and is converting it to eight apartments, he said. Branch’s vehicle was in the lawn next door at 94 East Ave. That section of East Avenue is “absolutely one of the most unwalkable and dangerous pedestrian areas in all of Norwalk,” he wrote.
Craighead has publicly urged for town green-area pedestrian improvements many times. He recently told the Zoning Commission that there are more than 1,000 full-time residents living within a 5-minute walk from town green’s center, most of them in the area’s 175 single-family homes but some in 10 to 15 multifamily or mixed-use properties and two large apartment buildings, and yet there’s no pedestrian plan.
“I often describe East Avenue as the equivalent of the Merritt Parkway running straight thru the center of the Norwalk Green Historic District,” he wrote last week to NancyOnNorwalk. “Without traffic lights, crosswalks, or any kind of traffic calming mechanisms in place, East Avenue divides the area and serves to completely discourage people from walking to / from Wall Street, Stew Leonard’s the FCC Farmer’s Market or anywhere for that matter and it is just as drive-in, drive-out as it was 20 years ago.”
So, the accident caused him to ask, “Perhaps this is a chance for our new Pedestrian Safety GURU Jim Travers to ‘Mr. Fix It’ to show us his stuff?”
Travers suggests higher curbs, trees
Travers was hired as Director of Transportation, Mobility, and Parking in January. He said the City has submitted a grant application to “to install sidewalks all over the city.” For East Avenue, “We are proposing concrete curbs with a 6-7 inch reveal.”
“Additionally, I think that our amenity zones would be best suited as tree belts and help line our streets with trees,” he continued. “This adds another barrier between vehicles and pedestrians, and not only helps clean the air, but offers shade and traffic calming. Imagine what this corridor could look and feel like if it was lined with street trees.”
Plus, there are the updated roadway standards, he said.
An ambitious grant application
If Norwalk gets $18.6 million for sidewalks from the federal government, it will be because Congress has reinstated “the process of earmarking for local governments and nonprofits after a decade-long ban, ushering in the return of congressionally directed spending through a reformed process dubbed ‘Community Project Funding’ (CPF) with added oversight mechanisms,” a post by legal firm Holland & Knight explains.
Lawmakers received guidance for CPF requests in late February and House Republicans agreed in mid-March.
In short: it’s a surprise opportunity. The deadline to apply for a grant was April 9.
You’ve heard of studies sitting on a shelf? Norwalk TMP used one, the 2012 Pedestrian & Bikeway Transportation Plan, to make its application strong.
“It’s a shovel ready project,” the application states, using the study’s evidence of a “significant amount of community support” for the hoped-for $18.6 million “a mass implementation of safe sidewalks, crossings and trails within the prioritized corridors to transform the City.”
It would take Norwalk 60 years to complete the plan’s recommendation at the current rate of spending, about $325,000 a year, the application states.
“While such an ambitious Citywide Sidewalk Program has not been done to date in other Connecticut municipalities, similar programs have been completed across the country with shocking results. The most notable programs include the City of Decatur which has been dubbed the most walkable City in Georgia with more than 60 miles of sidewalks in its 4.2 square miles and Austin Texas has built almost 100 miles of new sidewalks since 2005,” the application states.
The 2012 plan outlines East Avenue crosswalk improvements at Sunset Hill, Eversley and Hendricks Avenues. There’s also mention of curb bulbouts and pedestrian crossing signals.
Transportation Planner Greg Pacelli told the Bike/Walk Commission that 50 pedestrian projects were in the grant. “There’s no guarantee what amount of money is going to be granted to us,” he said. “…We may get $5 million. So, we’re putting this ambitious amount together, we’re putting this together in less than two weeks, and we’re submitting it to the to the state, and we’re going to see what comes out of it. But we’re, we’re hopeful that we can get, you know, if not all, at least a sizable amount, because we have a lot of supporting data for all this, we have a lot of socio-economic data that’s supporting it.”
Norwalk is embarking on a new Transportation Master Plan process, Travers said. “The grant opportunity did come up quite quickly and we think this could be a hugely impactful project.”
‘We’ll get there’
The Council on Tuesday approved an update to the Department of Public Works roadway standards, dating to 2017.
“This is yet another example of Norwalk, moving forward with the Build Green initiative, looking to safety for both bikers and walkers along with motorists. Through the study we will try to identify areas that are better off for bikes in a safe way, without causing any additional traffic or congestion to the city,” Public Works Committee Chairman George Tsiranides (D-District D) said.
It’s a move to accommodate a Complete Streets approach, sometimes called Vision Zero, a “total package for a streetscape that allows motorists and pedestrians to function in a very safe and comfortable environment,” Norwalk Chief of Operations and Public Works Anthony Robert Carr said.
The major change is to lower the minimum lane size for arterial road from 12 feet to 10 feet, Principal Engineer Vanessa Valadares told the Public Works Committee last week. This will allow for bike lanes in some areas, depending on an engineering analysis.
“On East Av, we have primarily 10-foot travel lanes today,” Travers said Tuesday.
Studies and recommendations are based on American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) standards, Valadares said.
“We will be looking at right sizing lanes and roadways as each opportunity presents itself,” Travers said. While there’s “not one sure fire thing that we could be to minimize these unfortunate events” like last week’s East Avenue accident, “rather they are best addressed by a series of betterments, including an Education Campaign. It will take us a while to get there, but I think we will most definitely get there.”
Pedestrian Committee Co-Chair Audrey Cozzarin offered these thoughts, via email:
“The Town Green area, its perimeter, could be better marked and painted, along with several measures, to make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. The First Taxing District, as you know, operates the Town Green and would need to be part of the conversation. There are advocates such as myself (Co-Chair of the Pedestrian Committee, a subcommittee of the Norwalk Bike/Walk Commission) who have identified options found to be successful: These include both community-embracing solutions such as creative and colorful crosswalks as well as engineering modifications such as closing off the quick-turn right turn lanes (found at the corner of Park Street at the top of Wall Street) which are hazardous to pedestrians.
“A solution found to be successful in other cities is reducing the speed limit in-city to 25mph. Shrinking travel lane widths, referred to as ‘road diets,’ can slow traffic but can also create congestion, so it would need to be monitored for a further solution possibly. East Avenue right now is one of the most accident-prone streets in Norwalk according to UConn Crash Data Repository and data also collected by the City of Norwalk and Norwalk Police Department.
“Mr. Travers makes some excellent recommendations that planting trees, perhaps adding beautiful planters or gardens, and finding ways to add safe walking/biking lanes would help slow traffic down. Like the Complete Streets model, when motorists see interesting sights scaled for their general sight level, such as streetscapes that Mr. Travers mentions, motorists tend to slow down. Markings on the street as well catch attention on a subconscious level, with messages that translate quickly such as ‘Pedestrian Crossing’ or ‘Slow Down’ and then react accordingly.
“I would add the extra layer of true protection for pedestrians and bicyclists by making these lanes separated by a hard barrier or raised above street level, or with planters and attractive fencing that keeps people safe and away from traffic.
“I think we can make East Avenue and the Town Green area much more walking and biking friendly. The Town Green and much of East Avenue, as well as Wall Street, include wonderful historic places in our city and it’s time to really highlight and celebrate them. Experiencing our city on foot or bike is very different than by car. You miss a lot when driving because your focus is, or should be, on the task at hand. When you stroll or roll, you see and feel the city as an immediate and intimate experience. That’s where the joy is!”