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Opinion: Season of the witch?

By Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large)

Norwalk Common Council

My wife was surprised. I walked into the house around 11 p.m. She said, “I thought you would be home early,” referring to my prediction that the Jan. 28 Common Council meeting would not go too late.

All I could say was, “And we only dealt with one issue. One #%^*@# issue!” I went on to describe in general terms (since it was late) the debate on the Rowayton Avenue road project, a $2.3 million, federally and state funded project that, two years before, I had not only voted against, but called a “boondoggle.”

I mentioned that there was something about this issue that agitated me, made me almost angry. Moreover, it seemed some of the folks in the audience were also uncomfortable as they spoke against the decision to hire a company to commence the final phase of a project that was officially approved two years ago and had been in the works since the mid-1990s.

Her view of my agitation was simple: “Must be the season of the witch.” While I would have loved to attribute these intense feelings to witchcraft, from a personal standpoint, my guess is that I had never before flipped on an issue, gone from voting against to voting for, and that was probably the reason I was bothered.

Two years ago, I viewed the Rowayton Avenue project through a residential lens, that is, I looked at it exclusively in the context of a residential community. From that perspective, I didn’t see the need to spend a couple of million state and federal dollars to address the kinds of safety issues, such as poor vertical lines of sight, that are common across the city.

Subsequent to that vote, two things happened. The first, and most important, is that I began to view the project in a different context, from the perspective of a commuter railroad station (which is really what this is all about), where relatively large numbers of people are invariably in a hurry, on foot and in cars, in good and bad weather, and often in the dark.

Second: In recent weeks, I received more detailed information than I had received two years earlier; such as, data about accidents in the vicinity, measurements that indicated only minimal changes would be made to the road, information indicating the state had gone through the review process for historical areas, assurances that the project could not possibly lead to large trucks barreling up and down Rowayton Avenue, etc. Thus, I changed my vote.

Nonetheless, the debate and the public participation were a little strange. (Especially for a project that is totally funded by the federal and state governments; and especially in light of the fact that, if the city killed the project, taxpayers would have to pay the state and federal governments somewhere between $500,000 and $700,000, which is the amount already spent on design and other work related to the project.)

For instance, a speaker from the public announced that the overwhelming majority of Rowayton residents opposed the project. But in the days before the Council meeting, none of my at-large colleagues who voted for the project received a single email asking us to nix the project. In the past, whenever there was a groundswell of opposition to an agenda item, we would be swamped by emails and phone calls, and even petitions.

Also, there were statements from the audience and some Council members to the effect that the public had not been properly informed about the project, and thus had no opportunity to voice its displeasure.

But discussion of this project began in the early 1990s during what was called a “commuter revolt,” had been endorsed by three mayors, the federal and state governments, and had been approved by the Common Council in 2011 after a lively debate.

Plus, a special sub-committee had been set up by the Council’s Public Works committee to address any resident concerns, and we agreed to address those concerns, even if they fell outside the official scope of the project, such as the addition of more sidewalks leading to the railroad station.

During one of the several recesses in the debate, we tried to pinpoint exactly what had not been done; what specific resident concerns had not been addressed. And we couldn’t come up with one. Thus, we approved the construction contract by a 9 to 6 bipartisan vote, with seven Republicans and to Democrats voting for, and six Democrats against.

But some folks are still angry – at what we’re not sure. Maybe my wife is right, “Must be the season of the witch.”

Bruce Kimmel

Comments

8 responses to “Opinion: Season of the witch?”

  1. Taxpayer Fatigue

    Would you share the accident data? My understanding is that none of the accidents in the vicinity had anything to do with the bridge, especially after it was replaced by the state.

  2. Casey Smith

    At this point, are all these arguments just tilting at windmills? Wasn’t it two or three years ago that a member of the Common Council Public Works Committee demanded copies of every single memo on this subject for the last seven years? And much more recently, it seems that there was a former Council Member who was upset with the Public Works Committee about the way that the State had treated those immediately affected by the eminent domain rulings. Where does it end?

  3. Mike Mushak

    Bruce, many folks are very angry that the project was presented with deliberate mis-representations by staff and some councilmembers, all on the record, including things you repeat in your letter.
    .
    The fact is prominent community leaders have been requesting for years that this project be scaled back in scope, and address pedestrian and bike accessibility issues that the community has wanted for years, and nearly $600,000 of expert taxpayer-funded studies support. That has all fallen on deaf ears. To say this project addresses all of those concerns is FALSE, and is not worthy of your integrity.

    This project is NOT fully reimbursable by the state and federal governments, and you know that. Why repeat it? Saying it does not make it true. After hearing that repeatedly, we listen in disbelief as statements are made on the record, and at the very same meetings we are told the project is FULLY reimbursable, that, oh, by the way, landscaping and staff supervising time is NOT reimbursable, which can easily total into the hundreds of thousands on a project of this scale. I asked that question of city costs be addressed again at the meeting last night, on Feb 4th, and it was ignored yet again by Mr. Alvord, and by you, Bruce. We know this project will cost city taxpayers plenty, based on statements on the record, so why deny it? The issue is not whether or not Rowayton deserves to have Norwalk taxpayer funds invested in projects there, which they do, but why for years the projects that the community wants, like better footpaths and safer routes to school, have been ignored at the same time this project was and is being “sold” as not costing the city anything, when it clearly will. Bruce, why didn’t you ask this question yourself when the contradiction in facts arose? Is it that you may fall out of favor with your adopted party if you push for the truth too hard?
    .
    A careful reading of the now famous 17-year accident history, which has been discussed in detail here on NON in a recent article with links to the accident reports for all to read so there can be no question about their authenticity, reveal that NOT A SINGLE accident in 17 years is related to visibility issues or any other safety issue that suggests a need for this project.
    .
    The 8 accidents necessitating this project that Mr. McCarthy refers to in the Council meeting linked here: http://www.norwalkct.org/index.aspx?NID=1452, at 57:30 on the timer, are the same eight accidents NON revealed in her article. These were 8 accidents that were vetted by Mr. Mccarthy himself, as he states, removing 5 others from a total of 13 he said were driver error. ASTOUNDINGLY, the Norwalk Police Department only has these eight accidents in this 17-year period recorded, not 13. Where are the other 5 that Mr Mccarthy says he rejected?
    .
    Most disturbing, the 8 accidents Mr. Mccarthy says required this project were ALSO all driver error, and minor in nature. Bumped fenders in the station parking lot, bumped mirrors under the old narrow bridge (which has already been widened and is not part of this new project), a case of following too closely that got the driver a warning, a construction related accident where one car backed into another in the confusion from a sudden road closing,and two case of folks sliding on ice on roads that hadn’t been sanded properly, according to police on the scene. So, not a single accident in 17 years pointed to the need for this project at this scale. That is the undisputable truth, no matter how desperately this is spun by our officials to justify this boondoggle.
    .
    All of the other reasons cited by you, Bruce, and others for this project are easily bebunked by the facts. Truck height is moot, as all delivery vehicles including UPS, FedEx, and Pea Pod, still fit under the 11 foot there now. We were told delivery trucks don’t fit under teh current 11 feet by Mr. McCarthy. One reported truck strike in 17 years, which was on the new bridge making the scratches, was by a 13 foot truck which still wont fit after spending nearly $3 million to lower the road to increase the clearance to 12 feet. The accident would have occurred anyway after this project is finished! Better signage is needed, despite Mccarthy;s claim that it is currently sufficient, because the signs now on the road are just numerical, and not the much better “Caution: low clearance ahead” signs Darien has and which are needed at the top and bottom of Rowayton Avenue.
    .
    The unreported “dozens” of truck strikes McCarthy notes in his latest letter are just that, unreported, so how does he know there are dozens? Again, the scratches on the bridge ceiling are most likely from the one recent reported truck strike. The point is the clearance could have been increased at the bridge itself, with some work necessary for about 30 feet to the north of the bridge,for a fraction of teh cost of blowing up the road for 800 feet and removing all of the mature trees,and replacing all of the retaining walls and utilities for that distance.
    .
    Emergency vehicle access is moot, as they all fit except for one hook and ladder, but which is never needed in low-rise Rowayton anyway, and if it was, it has other shorter and faster routes from its home at Exit 14, including Highland and Wilson.
    .
    The visibility issue with the hill north of the station , the removal of which is the most expensive part of the project that needed scaling back, is also moot. The “sight stopping distance” is now 330 feet, which at 25 mph is required to be 150 feet according to federal standards. The actual braking distance at that speed is 90 feet. So at 25 mph, we have well over double the safe stopping distances, and even at 40 mph, the distances are still sufficient.
    .
    The other claim by McCarthy and others is that the road will not be widened, and that others making that claim that it are misleading the public. While technically correct that the road itself is not being widened, curb to curb, the actual cut into the hillsides on either side of the road is significant, and will effectively widen the visual corridor to a huge extent at a highway scale that folks will naturally want to speed there, exactly where you don’t want increased speeds at a busy train station. We are actually creating a safety issue where none exists now, which is actually acknowledged by McCarthy in his claim there will be increased enforcement needed! So, we’re spending nearly $3 million to create a need for speed enforcement, at a spot where not a single accident has occurred in 17 years based on the current conditions.
    .
    Government doesn’t get any more absurd than this. Mark my words, there will be increased accidents, and serious ones unlike the current unrelated fender benders that have no relation to this project, once this project is completed. Folks are going to fly into that area at much higher speeds because of a road that is “dangerous by design”, that no amount of enforcement will control.
    .
    Bottom line, all of the reasons given by officials to justify this huge over-scale project, including by Bruce Kimmel, are not supported by the actual facts. I believe the Democrats were justified to vote no on this project,which they did to force a serious and much needed re-design to scale it back, which the community had been requesting for years with no response from anyone.
    .
    I recommend that anyone interested should go out and photograph what is there now, including the overall setting with all of the mature trees and old walls, and watch the ensuing project unfold over the next year. The improvements that are needed, including sidewalks and a small retaining wall renovation in the station area, and new sidewalks south to Cudlipp and to fill some gaps on Rowayton and Richards north of the station, and bike lanes and sharrows on the entire 3 mile corridor including Richards up to Fox Run school, could all have easily been done for about $300,000. Instead, we are spending nearly $3,000,000, including city expenses that have been deceptively hidden from the debate, for a project that is out of scale, solves no safety issues, and ignores the needs of the community. Unbelievable.
    .
    I agree with Bruce Kimmel on this fact, although for different reasons than he does, that it clearly must be the “season of the witch”, for this project to have been supported by so many smart folks like himself who are choosing to ignore plain facts and statistics!

    not scaled back to save money and still solve teh monor issues that need fixing, which could have been done at a fraction of the cost. This project would never pass a “value engineering” test, where the cost of a project is matched to the problems it solves.

  4. Mike Mushak

    The last two lines above were hidden out of view in the typing window when I posted, and are not meant to be part of my post. Although that last sentence makes sense, it belonged higher up in the post and not at the end. Wish we had an edit button here!

  5. LWitherspoon

    @Mike Mushak
    .
    If this project doesn’t happen, the City has to pay the state and federal government $500,000-$700,000. Do you favor the City cancelling the project and paying out that money? If not, what constructive course of action do you propose?
    .
    Will Mayor Rilling be seeking agreement from Gov. Malloy to waive the cancellation fees in the event that the City cancels the project?

  6. Mike Mushak

    LWitherspoon, great question. No one I know wants the project cancelled, including me. What community leaders and myself and the Democrats wanted was it to be redesigned and scaled back, to save taxpayers money and to solve minor issues in the station area that need it, but adding the sidewalks and bike lanes the expert studies call for in that whole Rowayton Ave corridor, which are NOT being addressed. The right-of-ways already purchased would still be needed for wall and sidewalk work, and lowering the road a bit under the bridge, but the road does not need to be lowered for 800 feet to remove a hill that does not block any visibility or create any dangerous situations, as explained above. The right-of-ways would probably have not needed to be so wide, but that would be a loss we could accept as a cost of bad decision-making.
    .
    It is absurd to continue to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on an over-engineered and over scale project, based solely on fact that we already spent a fraction of that money on it already. The wacky reasoning is, we already wasted $500,000, so now we have to waste almost $3,000,000 to justify the $500,000 already wasted, on a project that no facts support the need for.
    .
    Bottom line is, there would have been no need for the city to reimburse the state the full amount already spent, if any at all, as most the work already done and property purchased could have been absorbed into a new properly designed and scaled project, which the community has been requesting for years.

    However, this huge project is happening, so it’s a moot point. It passed on a 9-6 vote. What I object to is Dave McCarthy and Bruce Kimmel insulting those of us publicly who wanted a sensible approach based on the facts, and who have called this project what it is, a classic boondoggle. That was Kimmel’s own description of the project, two years ago, before he had an epiphany recently and became a staunch supporter, based as he said on “the facts”, ironically none of which actually support the need for the project at this scale.
    .

    It does not bode well for future possibly over-engineered projects on East Avenue and West Avenue, which are literally being kept secret from the public. Let’s not forget this is the same DPW that gave us the Strawberry Hill fiasco, where a parking lane was preserved even though no one ever uses it, shifting bike lanes in front of 3 schools out into the middle of the road, and stopping short at intersections with no signage or dashed lines to help anyone on a bike navigate through those choke points, against common sense and federal standards.

  7. Diane C2

    Some lessons learned from this fiasco…

    1) Though it is NEVER too late to voice one’s concerns about ANY project in Norwalk, we residents need to be more vocal at the very onset of infrastructure and development projects. Too many times we have it thrown in our faces at the 11th hour that a project “has been vetted” and that the city held “numerous public meetings”. Many taxpayers make the regrettable mistake of believing their elected officials are watching out for them, and therefore most residents don’t attend committee and council meetings, or even read meeting minutes to stay informed.

    2) Any agenda items that originate from Public Works Director Hal Alvord, Recreation & Parks Director Mike Mocciae, or Redevelopment Agency Director Tim Sheehan that contain the word “improvement” should be cause for alarm and residents should turn out en masse to learn about them.

    3)No city project should ever be tied in directly with the state for the sole purpose of funding. East Norwalkers begged Hal Alvord and the State DOT to keep the East Avenue widening project separate from the railroad project, and now we will be stuck with the same threat of owing them money if we back out. But the projects are only considered together when it benefits the state. For instance, when I asked for the signed rights of way agreement for the project I am told they don’t require any for the city portion. Funny, but the 3 properties they are taking by eminent domain were part of the city project!

    4)What is happening in Rowayton and about to happen in East Norwalk can happen to any neighborhood in Norwalk. Do NOT listen to elected officials who dismiss your concerns simply because you don’t live in the currently affected areas. We ALL have a right to be heard when it comes to spending (wasting) our tax dollars, be they local, state or federal.

  8. Debora

    Bruce,

    I am keeping these two paragraphs for future reference, as I expect to be reading them again with respect to the East Ave project(s) circa 2015-2016. (Again, the roadway and the bridge projects have been tied together to get the state money).

    ::For instance, a speaker from the public announced that the overwhelming majority of Rowayton residents opposed the project. But in the days before the Council meeting, none of my at-large colleagues who voted for the project received a single email asking us to nix the project. In the past, whenever there was a groundswell of opposition to an agenda item, we would be swamped by emails and phone calls, and even petitions.

    Also, there were statements from the audience and some Council members to the effect that the public had not been properly informed about the project, and thus had no opportunity to voice its displeasure.::

    Let me go on record as having said that I have not met a single individual who resides in East Norwalk that has expressed support for the roadway lowering portion of the East Ave project, but have met countless who are against. (There are some outside the district who are supportive).

    There are those of us who have been requesting documents from the city and state with respect to the East Avenue project since last summer and continue to come up empty-handed. How can the citizen-tax-payer effectively object to a project that they cannot vet?

    Of course, there is at least one major difference with respect to the East Avenue project–the Public Works Committee VOTED DOWN the rights of way agreement for East Avenue. And that makes the use of eminent domain even more peculiar. Especially as no plans exist yet to justify the taking of those properties (according to the City).

    Any council member who is able to share with the community of East Norwalk all of the information that the City has at its disposal on this project is encouraged to do so.

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