Not until employees of the Department of Transportation were asked about next steps in the process, at the very end of a two hour meeting, did they bother to dispense with one major detail: the hearing officer has not yet made a decision about whether or not Flower Street could be closed.
In a meeting of the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association, Brian Cunningham of the CT DOT and Tony Margiotta of Baker Engineering, explained the “recommended options for further study for the Flower Street crossing.”
Four of those options were presented by Margiotta as having potential; he said they considered 25 different options in a charrette, looking at fourteen of those in depth. No indication was given as to when any decision would be made about this part of the project, and after much bumbling with that softball question, Cunningham said that he would email individuals associated with the Frog Hollow and Asylum Hill organizations.
In a matter of weeks, the CT DOT and its associated engineers went from claiming that there was absolutely nothing they would do to accommodate pedestrians inconvenienced by the planned permanent closure of Flower Street to all traffic, to managing to find several alternatives that did not merely involve telling people to wait around for a circulator shuttle on their lunch breaks.
The shuttle idea is still one they are holding onto, however, despite being told by the Aetna and various residents that this would not mitigate the disconnection of Asylum Hill from Frog Hollow. In the Tuesday night meeting, one option was pushed by the DOT more heavily than others, yet this option does the least to meet the needs of residents and Capitol Avenue merchants.
Saying they “have not formally or finally decided” on any options, the DOT favored that of creating what they are describing as a pedestrian/bicycle multi-use trail between Flower Street and Broad Street. This would be constructed under the I-84/Aetna viaduct. The State would be responsible for the structure and landscaping, but they said the City would have to deal with matters like plowing. There was no indication that the DOT has had conversations with the City about this potential maintenance issue.
At any rate, the State would not be plowing the path; likewise, the multi-use path that will run alongside the busway in New Britain and Newington will not be plowed. They did not say what they expected cyclists to do when snow covers the path.
While the DOT favored this option, not all meeting attendees shared that enthusiasm. For one, this does not manage the North-South travel; instead, it creates a path running more-or-less parallel to Capitol Avenue and Farmington Avenue. For cyclists exiting the East Coast Greenway by the armory and Legislative Office Building, they will need to — if they heed recommendations for bicyclists — still ride on one of the hairiest sections of Broad Street, turning left onto the path, directly across from the I-84 on ramp. The solution to this, according to Cunningham and Margiotta, is to cross Broad on Capitol, and then ride on the sidewalk — against traffic — or get off the bike and walk it.
When they were asked if either of them would personally be willing to test ride that on a bicycle, Cunningham paused, stared hard, and said he had no plans to try out the turns he is essentially asking others to make. As an aside, those concerned about the use of nuclear power plants have for years insisted that until those engineers were willing to store the waste in their homes, there should remain many questions about the true safety of it.
One cyclist suggested that having strong wayfinding in this area would make navigating from the East Coast Greenway to the path less difficult.
A point repeated in the meeting was that this option would be an “aesthetic area” that could connect with the East Coast Greenway; the DOT spoke of the possibility of creating an alternative route of the ECG that would go from Broad to Flower and then to Asylum and South Whitney. While no cyclist in the room said she or he would prefer that route, this idea continued to be floated out. Ultimately, any decision to touch the ECG is up to that organization, not the DOT. Cunningham mentioned that there were plans to conduct a pedestrian/cyclist traffic study in the area of the Sigourney Street, Farmington Avenue, and Asylum triangle, but he could not specify when this might take place.
The next most-favored option by the DOT is that of building an elevated pedestrian/cyclist bridge with a combination of linear and switchback ramps over the busway and tracks.
This, along with the other elevated “viable” option, would be much more expensive than the path. Unable to give exact figures, the DOT estimated that it was a difference between thousands and millions. One resident suggested that the money saved on the cheapest option — the multi-use path — be used to secure maintenance of it for years to come. Seeing how stumped Cunningham was at the suggestion, the resident suggested he “think outside the box,” not the first time that someone has provoked the agency to do so.
With this second tier viable option of linear and switchback ramps, there would be a possible loss of the DAS parking lot, which would fit into Hartford’s own Plan of Conservation and Development in terms of making areas more pedestrian friendly (i.e. removing surface parking). This, along with the other elevated option would require a right-of-way be granted by Amtrak. In each meeting, whenever Amtrak has been mentioned, one would think the DOT was having to do battle with great forces of evil.
For this option, there would be a steady 5% grade slope to the ramp.
In both elevated structure options and that of an at-grade crossing, Margiotta noted that there were public safety concerns. When asked how exactly these were measured, he supplied a list of things like lighting and cameras, but did not give an indication of what in particular qualified the “long isolated switchback ramps” as being a public safety concern. He said this was not subjective, while providing no crime data showing that such infrastructure is inherently more dangerous.
An assumption continuously made is that Hartford empties after 5pm. If studies have been conducted showing cyclist and foot traffic in the area on nights and weekends, this information has not been shared in meetings.
A third possible option, not favored by the DOT, was that of an elevated pedestrian/bicycle bridge with just switchback ramps over the busway and tracks. There would be right-of-way impacts to the Hartford Courant’s existing parking and utilities; nobody mentioned the positive impact this may have on the quality of reporting if even a handful of journalists were forced to get out of their cars and interact with the city.
An option that was listed as viable, but which Margiotta referred to verbally as “not an option” was that of a 2-1-2 busway lane configuration. Though motor vehicles would still be barred from crossing, this would allow pedestrians and cyclists to continue up Flower Street, crossing the railroad and busway at-grade.
Because of railroad signal equipment requirements and the need for some kind of “shelter” in between the tracks and busway, a short segment of the busway would be configured as an alternating one-way. There was balking on this option, mainly, it seemed, because of the possibility of traffic on the busway getting backed up if there were an accident or disabled bus in this section.
None of the so-called viable options put the needs of cyclists and pedestrians equal to those of motorists.
As Margiotta gave an overview of all the flawed options that were considered nonviable, he stated that “Aetna Way” must remain open, as must the parking and access for Courant delivery trucks. Ten options had “fatal flaws,” meaning that they were thrown out. These included raising Flower Street over the busway and railroad; lowering the street; raising the busway over Flower to maintain existing crossing for pedestrians and cyclists; raising busway over Flower for the same purpose with an arch structure; creating a double deck bus lane by raising one lane of the busway, which would maintain the crossing for all traffic; different variations of the elevated pedestrian/bicycle bridge; a depressed pedestrian/bicycle underpass/tunnel; and, lowering busway under Flower Street and Amtrak.
In some cases, the proposed options would allegedly undermine the integrity of the I-84/Aetna Viaduct piers, but primarily, the opposition seemed connected to how the plan could impact Aetna and the Courant. The depressed underpass could interfere with the Park River conduit, but on paper, that was not even noted; the major concerns listed there involved the I-84 Viaduct, Aetna Parking Garage and Building, Aetna Way and the Hartford Courant building and parking. Another nonviable option was dispensed with because of the “queuing concerns.” The DOT has provided no recent data justifying that particular concern. Several options would have required elevating I-84.
Residents and stakeholders asked if any of the options could be tweaked; this was met with a range of attitude from no to we want to try to work to meet your needs– a slight improvement over immediately shooting down all suggestions.
It was learned that Aetna is doing a traffic study with other entities, but also that the major employer will be targeting its employees, urging those in certain towns to utilize the busway when it opens. Aetna currently charges for parking and offers bus vouchers. The company challenged the DOT to advocate for the State to do the same. Others in the meeting, unaffiliated with Aetna, inquired as to why State workers were not incentivized to make use of public transportation. State employees have free parking in surface lots all along Capitol Avenue.
When a resident asked what kind of beautification would happen to Flower Street if it does end up closed, the DOT had trouble speaking off-script. Their response? There would be space for a firetruck to turn around and the street would be closed off with chain link fencing. Jennifer Cassidy of Asylum Hill stressed to the DOT that chainlink fencing would be undesirable.
The most certain piece of information to emerge was that Flower Street will remain open to pedestrian/bicycle traffic until approximately June 2013, though there may be intermittent closures due to the construction.
With that piece of good news and a load of uncertainty, there was also a reminder that the sidewalk on Broad Street will be restricted during construction in order to accommodate motor vehicles. Cunningham assured residents and stakeholders that the sidewalk would remain in compliance with ADA regulations, but that it would be narrow.
Little attention was paid to how any proposed options would mitigate the concerns that business owners along Capitol Avenue have expressed. Providing alternatives to “no” is a start, but the DOT needs to recognize that residents are less interested in a scenic route than in moving efficiently from Point A to Point B.
On Thursday, there will be a similar presentation given to the Frog Hollow NRZ by the CT Department of Transportation regarding these options. The meeting, held at the Lyceum (227 Lawrence Street), begins around 5pm.