Dissent from Neighborhood
Not a single Hartford resident or business owner attending Monday’s special meeting of the Frog Hollow NRZ spoke in favor of the closure of Flower Street. Though the Connecticut Department of Transportation is required to hold a public hearing (August 23) regarding this street closure, the DOT spokesmen (the sole female never spoke) made it clear that they were uninterested in engaging the community in discussing the unilateral decision to further cut off Frog Hollow and Asylum Hill from one another. The viaduct began that job; the busway appears to be finishing it.
The meeting began with a presentation on the planned closure of Flower Street, though the DOT actually gave more overview of other parts of the project along with the planned construction on Broad Street, which they said could begin as early as next week. They explained, in detail not afforded to the Flower Street portion of the project, how the Broad-Asylum-Farmington intersection would be reconfigured. This segment showed serious detail to repainting lanes differently, but did not incorporate lessons from past failures with reconfigured turning lanes, as resident Jennifer Cassidy noted. This could be a metaphor for the DOT’s method of planning: be detail-oriented about one aspect while not investigating other angles whatsoever.
In their presentation, the DOT spokesmen (8-10 employees with the Department were present at the meeting, but only three spoke at any length) boasted that the Flower Street closure had been endorsed by the FRA/FTA administrations, though they did not say when this occurred.
They also said that they had traffic concerns regarding this area, yet the most recent traffic study completed for Flower Street was done by CRCOG — in 2006.
Cary Wheaton, the executive director of Billings Forge Community Works, along with David Corrigan, of the Frog Hollow NRZ, demanded a new traffic study be completed as there have been major changes in the neighborhood since 2006. The Firebox, a major draw, opened in 2007. The Kitchen at Billings Forge opened its doors only a few years ago. In that area, there have also been classes and events at the Studio, along with a farmers’ market — none of which were happening at the time of the CRCOG study. The Dunkin Donuts, formerly at the gas station on Broad and Capitol, moved into a space on Lawrence and Capitol. Young professionals have become more willing to move into the neighborhood — a feat, as Frog Hollow has had to overcome the reputation it carried around long after the gang activity largely moved out over a decade ago.
Add to this Aetna’s centralization of operations. In 2006, the company had 2,800 employees in Hartford. By 2010, it had moved an additional 3,600 employees out of the Middletown complex to the Hartford location.
None of these significant changes — if the DOT had even been aware of them — had compelled engineers to conduct a more recent traffic study, a no-brainer task that is completed for far less disruptive maneuvers than the closure of a road to vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians.
Loss of Foot Traffic Would Impact Businesses
Local merchants from Capitol Avenue all spoke of their frustrations that businesses would suffer losses, not merely during construction, but permanently. After some pressure, the DOT considered running a shuttle bus that would loop from Capitol, up Sigourney, along Farmington, and then down Broad; this would be yet another empty shuttle, residents and business-owners feared. Smirking, a DOT spokesman suggested workers from Aetna and the Hartford could just walk down Broad Street; as Frog Hollow representatives pointed out, these workers are often on their lunch breaks and if they have to walk further, they likely will not make the trek at all. Not listening to their concerns, the DOT continued to push its “Construction Survival Guide;” the worry about business was due to the closure of Flower Street, not to any short term issue.
Initially, the DOT made it sound as if they were interested in resident and stakeholder opinion, but it quickly became clear that their minds were made up, as they eventually said, “we’re here to say the crossing’s closing.”
Safety of Utmost Concern
Again, offering up contradictions, the DOT claimed “safety of operations is of utmost concern,” yet when residents named their safety concerns, only once did a DOT employee take pause and show due consideration.
It was explained to the DOT that riding a bicycle on Flower is safer than doing so on Sigourney or Broad Street; while there are tracks to cross, the infrequency — and ample warning — of actual trains seems less risky than the constant flow of speeding vehicles whose drivers frequently disobey traffic laws in their race to enter and exit I-84. A cyclist who is riding legally — with traffic and in the rightmost lane except when turning — risks being T-boned by impatient and non-alert motorists who rush to leave the city. Again, smirking, a representative of the Department of Transportation told cyclists that when Flower Street closes, they should simply ride on Broad.
When asked if anyone from the DOT had cycled or walked down Broad Street during rush hour, the DOT employees offered blank stares, confirming suspicions that nobody present had the most basic type of familiarity with the neighborhood: feet on the pavement.
Residents were assured there would be a 4′ shoulder on the west side of the bridge on Broad Street, and a 2′ shoulder on the other — yet the DOT had no answer for what cyclists should do in the short term, nor did they understand that a shoulder would not protect from motorists heading north on Broad Street and attempting to enter I-84 without slowing, never mind stopping. Instead, cyclists and pedestrians were essentially told to be grateful for their crumbs, tossed in the way of an increase to smooth concrete on the sidewalk and those wide shoulders that would happen…someday.
The DOT repeatedly argued that Flower Street is and would be more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists than Broad Street. When asked for statistics of how many pedestrian/cyclists incidents there were on Flower versus Broad, again, all the Department of Transportation could offer were blank stares and admission that they “don’t have those numbers.”
When reprimanded for not having satisfying answers, the DOT said that when we have medical issues, we trust our doctors. Presenting a metaphor that does not even hold true — most people do independent research and ask for second opinions — they expected support from the public simply because they are employed with this particular agency.
In the meantime, Flower Street is slated to be closed as early as this Fall, well before the busway would be completed; Broad Street will simultaneously be under construction, adding headaches in the short term; and, as an official said, they have no indication that the busway would lower local traffic volume in this area. Trusting an entity that offers nothing in the way of viable alternatives seems ill-advised, particularly when that entity cites safety on one street but brushes off those concerns when they arise just one block away.
The False Dichotomy
If an eyebrow does not raise when someone presents a scenario in which he claims there are only two options, one is simply not utilizing her critical thinking abilities.
Throughout the meeting, residents and stakeholders were told by the Department of Transportation that either Flower Street is closed or a pedestrian/cyclist will get killed.
Simply put: the lack of creativity was palpable.
Every alternative presented by residents and business-owners — many of which have been considered in other locations — were immediately shot down. For a fresh mental picture, think of the petulant toddler who has just learned the word “no” and is unwilling to entertain anything, even if it may be in the best interest of all or could work with some tinkering.
Residents and stakeholders suggested a bridge or tunnel for pedestrians and cyclists. The street, already equipped with crossing arms, could have more installed, they suggested. A light. Closure of the street during peak operating hours only. A path just below the viaduct connecting Flower to Broad. Slightly lowering the grade of Flower Street to accommodate for the height of a pedestrian/cyclist bridge. Creating a trail a few feet away from Flower to allow for better visibility by bus drivers. Helping to facilitate a passage across Aetna property.
No, no, no, no, no.
Residents were told that the curving of the track/busway right before Flower Street would not give bus drivers enough visibility; they did not mention how the trains that run throughout the day now manage this without racking up dozens of casualties weekly.
Residents were told the Courant building is a visual obstruction, but again, did not indicate how pedestrians and cyclists have managed to work around this, mostly with success, to date.
The Department of Transportation claimed pedestrians could be “trapped” between the tracks — most of which will not be operational in the short term. They said that their traffic studies — none of which on this topic were cited specifically — indicated traffic queuing onto the tracks. Corrigan, who has commuted by bicycle five days per week for the last two years up Flower Street, said while he can only offer anecdotal evidence, he has seen exactly one car stopped on the tracks during that time. The DOT said “once is too much,” while showing none of the same concern for the number of pedestrians and cyclists currently risking life and limb crossing highway ramps on Sigourney and Broad.
A bridge was ruled out “because of the viaduct” and because an elevator would need to be installed, the DOT said, to meet ADA requirements. Because of the Park River conduit, there is a limit to how far down they could dig. The excuse of having to meet ADA requirements was used sporadically.
Selecting another nearby location for a path between Capitol and Farmington would not be considered; the DOT, as they did many other times, throughout the meeting, pushed the blame onto Amtrak, saying that the railroad’s liability would never allow them to consider such a measure. That residents or the DOT would have that conversation with Amtrak was not suggested.
For obtuse reasons, the DOT said installing better crossing arms on Flower Street would not be possible. Although they could not give an amount of time, they said the wait for motorists would become too long– much longer than a signal would slow down traffic. When it was pointed out that inconveniencing motorists might encourage them to make use of the busway, representatives said nothing.
Another excuse for not installing crossing arms is the required distance they would have to be from the tracks. Because of the obstruction created by the viaduct, the DOT claimed crossing arms would be unsuitable in this location. It is required that they be a minimum of 15 feet from the track. When asked what the maximum distance is, nobody could respond. More blank stares.
One stakeholder, saying “I realize I’m being creative,” suggested the compromise of closing Flower only at peak times, much like how numerous streets become one way for part of the day. After the DOT reiterated that there is apparently no space for gates, they said they had “never heard of a part-time crossing” except in the case of part-time service.
Clearly, if there is no precedent, it is impossible.
The idea of a pedestrian/bicycle pass hanging below the viaduct and running between Flower and Broad was floated out, but the DOT said that this option would be uninviting. What a gross underestimation of Frog Hollow and Asylum Hill residents to believe the bogeyman hiding in shadows would discourage them from using a piece of infrastructure that would allow for a safer commute.
With CTfastrak money, a lot used by the Department of Public Works is currently being remodeled at the corner of Capitol Avenue and Broad Street. It’s being leveled; bioswales are being installed to filter out pollution. When asked if an area of this lot could be more like a park, making that longer walk down Broad be more appealing, residents were told “no.” While there seems to be plans for addition of vegetation, and while pedestrians and cyclists can cut across the lot as before, it will remain a parking lot. The DOT said they “want parking to be permanent.” This parking would not be for busway users, nor is it especially close to Union Station.
As indicated by both the DOT and concerned residents, other at-grade crossings would remain open. The one on Oakwood, the DOT said, has more space between the train tracks and busway, providing more safe harbor for pedestrians who might get stuck; Hamilton Street, the location of another at-grade crossing, will remain open because it also has a “small area of refuge for pedestrians.” Getting stuck was a concern expressed only by the DOT. Residents and stakeholders seemed to have figured out how to safely cross tracks without getting stranded.
Flatbush Avenue is being reconstructed to have a flyover bridge above the busway and train tracks; the DOT provided no explanation as to why this was not being considered for Flower Street.
Lack of Communication
DOT spokesmen claimed that the plan to close Flower Street had been discussed at many meetings before, but residents who have served on numerous committees and have attended CRCOG and other meetings remarked that this was not true. In the past, closing Flower Street to motorized traffic had been mentioned, but only vaguely; details, they promised, would be ironed out later. One resident suggested that these meetings at which the closure had been discussed may have occurred only among members of the DOT, but not with the public.
Nobody, up until recent weeks, had heard that the DOT had any plan to shut it down entirely to pedestrians and cyclists.
The Frog Hollow NRZ demanded an improvement in communication from the DOT, expressing concerns about transparency.
Speaking with residents and stakeholders after the meeting, there was a shared sense that the Department of Transportation had no interest in listening to those who would be most negatively impacted by a project.
Exemplifying this was the repeated metaphor that the busway project was like remodeling a kitchen. What the DOT did not account for is that instead of homeowners having control over how much gets changed at once, they would be fixing the counters, sink, dishwasher, refrigerator, stove, gas lines, lights, tiles, and paint all at once. And, instead of having to get takeout for a week or two, the kitchen would be closed permanently. But as the DOT would be wont to suggest, residents can just go and eat at their neighbor’s house, forever.
As one resident put it, the DOT might know how to engineer, but they don’t know how to build trust in the community. For projects to be successful, community buy-in is necessary.
For those who recognize the “need to maintain the pace of economic development,” in the neighborhoods, as Corrigan put it, there will be several upcoming opportunities to speak out.
On August 15th, there will be a special meeting of the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association at 6pm at Immanuel Congregational Church on Woodland Street. The public is encouraged to attend this meeting.
On August 23rd, there will be an adjudicated regulatory hearing at DOT headquarters in Newington; this will be held at 8am in Conference Room A. Because of the inconvenience of this location, there has been talk of trying to get a continuance, in hopes of relocating the meeting to Hartford.