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Opinion: In Norwalk, bridge strikes aren’t the problem – lack of planning is

Third Taxing District Commissioner Debora Goldstein

Debora Goldstein is a Third Taxing District Commissioner, but said she is not writing to represent the Third Taxing District.

You may remember the outcry from East Norwalk residents a couple of years ago, as they sought to convince the City of Norwalk and Connecticut’s Department of Transportation (CTDOT) to preserve the existing clearance under the East Avenue Metro North Railroad Bridge.

Despite the fact that the 20-year-old Southwest Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA)-approved project had never been justified or approved as a bridge-strike reduction, or accident-reduction solution, on March 2, 2016, Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT) Commissioner Redeker put a stake in the heart of the hopes of East Norwalk residents to limit the cost and disruption to the neighborhood. This came in the form of a letter with lengthy justifications on why we must spend significant sums on lowering the roadway enough to accommodate full-size tractor trailer trucks under the bridge on their way to places other than East Norwalk in order to prevent bridge strikes.

Fully two paragraphs out of six were in response to a very reasonable request by residents to use low-cost bridge strike mitigation technology to prevent large trucks from hitting the bridge, instead of committing to massive, costly infrastructure changes to lower the roadway. Mr. Redeker even went so far as to say bridge strike warning systems would be ineffective because there was no place for trucks to turn around.

Fast-forward to April 2017, in what can only be described as a “what were they thinking?” moment, Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WCCOG), the successor planning agency to SWRPA, has reported that CTDOT has provided conditional approval to fund bridge strike mitigation in the area of Washington, North Main and South Main Streets. Expensive high-tech mitigation to the tune of $445,500—far more than the types of interventions East Norwalk was requesting—will be installed elsewhere in Norwalk.

Sadly, this is just one more symptom of Norwalk’s lack of outcome-based planning in favor of a “if we can get state money for it, let’s build it” culture of infrastructure management.

The funds being drawn down for the bridge strike mitigation project in SONO are from a state administered grant program called the Local Road Accident Reduction Program (LRARP), a program which uses federal money to identify locations with abnormally high numbers of accidents and to reduce injuries, deaths and property damage on local roads that are not state roads.

Because all state transportation projects are supposed to be subject to rigorous analysis to produce cost-effective outcomes, the COG evaluates which municipalities and which proposals receive priority recommendation for LRARP awards. Only two municipalities in each COG may receive grants each cycle.

Based upon accident data provided to the WCCOG for its member municipalities, it correctly prioritized Stamford and Norwalk as potential recipients of LRARP funds. (From 2010 to 2016, the statistics are Danbury: 11 fatalities 1827 injury crashes. Norwalk: 12 fatalities and 1318 injury crashes. Stamford: 15 fatality and 2468 injury crashes.) So far, so good.

After that, things went off the rails, so to speak. Norwalk proposed the bridge strike mitigation plan for the SONO area, even though accident data supports other areas of Norwalk as better candidates for accident reduction.

From a Norwalk Municipal accident map provided by the WCCOG in January 2016:

 

The legend: brown diamonds represent locations of accidents with injuries; red stars represent fatalities; blue circles represent the corridors with the greatest number of accidents; pink “blobs” are areas with the highest density of accidents- -typically at intersections.

 

 

 

Furthermore, the SONO bridge strike mitigation proposal’s primary benefits would be to reduce damage to state-owned property and to improve travel for the railroad. Neither of these results are the goals of the LRARP program. Oddly enough, the lack of places to turn a truck around in SONO doesn’t seem to be an issue, either.

Even on the basis of bridge strike reduction, the SONO area fails the data test. Bridge strike data provided by the City in connection with the project proposal reported 26 bridge strikes were recorded for the 9-year period 2007-2015, an average of less than three per year. Those figures are for three intersections.

Bridge Strike Data provided by the state in connection with the East Avenue project reported 27 bridge strikes for a 6-year period 2010-2015, an average of more than four per year. Even omitting an outlying year of 2013 with 10 strikes (!), the average for East Norwalk is still over three per year for a single intersection.

Which brings us back to the issue of poor planning that is wasting vast sums of money.

At any point in the last 20 years, a much smaller investment in bridge strike reduction at East Avenue would have resulted in a plan that would save the state millions in engineering costs to lower the roadway. Real planning would have us requesting the LRARP funds to reduce accidents at really dangerous intersections in Norwalk, instead of wasting half a million dollars protecting state property that accounts for less than 1 percent of all of the accidents in Norwalk.

We need to stop targeting projects to secure state funds and backing into the solution by finding a problem to solve. Instead, we need to start by asking what we are trying to achieve and look for cost-effective ways to get those results. In short, we need to do real planning for real outcomes.

Comments

2 responses to “Opinion: In Norwalk, bridge strikes aren’t the problem – lack of planning is”

  1. Robert Hard

    Deb,
    Nicely argued–and thanks for the maps.
    Looks like East Ave and West Ave are Accident Central.
    I don’t know how many close calls I’ve had in that stretch of East Ave from Exit 16 to the Green, but it’s a lot.
    Main problem seems to be people making left hand turns across traffic, which impels everyone behind them to try to shift into the right lane, itself crowded with cars moving at high speed. Maybe a mitigation measure worth considering is limiting left hand turns?
    So who’s responsibility is to figure this stuff out and propose corrective actions? Apparently non one–your point exactly.

  2. Debora Goldstein

    Bob,

    Thanks for the kind words. Regarding solutions for the East Ave slalom, there is an East Ave design committee set up to discuss options. East Norwalk Neighborhood Neighborhood Assn, the East Norwalk Business Assn and the Third Taxing District recently held a public forum to gather feedback. At last report, the slalom had been removed from the future plan. See: https://nancyonnorwalk.com/2017/03/east-avenue-concept-design-eliminates-crazy-turn-lane-configuration/

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