Following the latest hearing at the Connecticut Department of Transportation, one community member asked, “How much does Hartford’s Deputy Corporation Counsel Van Norden get paid to do nothing more than show up and read straight from a letter the Mayor wrote?”
The same could be asked of all ConnDOT representatives, aside from Judith Almeida, the Department of Transportation’s staff attorney and only employee appearing prepared for Wednesday evening’s first of two Flower Street Closing reconsideration hearings.
How could anyone have been prepared to respond to the City of Hartford’s 180° pulled minutes before the beginning of the hearing? This reversal, issued by Mayor Segarra, has been viewed by some in the community as a betrayal to residents and businesses, as a show of spinelessness, and one more poor decision in a stream of recent questionable choices.
In late April, officials from the City met with residents and stakeholders to discuss how to best move forward with the situation. The majority view was to keep pushing back against the DOT and not settle. This is what was supposed to be relayed back to Mayor Segarra: the neighborhood won’t settle. It wants to fight.
The few who did think having some settlement between the City and the DOT was a practical option insisted on having everything drawn up in writing to give it teeth. If it were to settle, the City, as of April, was going to include in its demands having the DOT commit to spend $30 million on Capitol Avenue improvements, look at making Sigourney Street safer for cyclists, alter State policies regarding affordable housing in Hartford, and more.
Throughout that meeting, the consensus was that nobody wanted a $6 million ramp built over the busway that would likely need to be removed in a few years when the viaduct is removed.
What also emerged in that meeting was the deep distrust everyone at the table — including City of Hartford employees — have regarding the Connecticut Department of Transportation. Thomas Deller, the Director of Hartf’ord’s Department of Development Services said he was “appalled” by how CTfastrak has done its planning, categorizing it as “haphazard.” A resident said, “the City has been victimized by the DOT for decades.”
By all accounts, it seemed that the City was going to fight the best it could for its residents and business owners.
Instead, Mayor Segarra effectively threw Hartford under the busway.
The vague letter addressed to Commissioner James P. Redeker states that the “DOT has committed to funding and constructing ‘up-and-over’ grade separated crossing, although, as has been explained to us, such funding is not currently in place. The City gratefully accepts the Department of Transportation’s commitment of comparable resources to work with the City of Hartford and local area residents and businesses to design and construct alternate projects to provide improvements to pedestrian and bicycle connections in the area. [...] The City has no intention seeking further adjudication or litigation on this matter.”
This concession, which demands none of the many items that were presented to the community, goes even further to semi-promise the one thing everyone agreed would be a waste of money and generally undesirable.
Not a single person from the City or DOT could provide more details about this letter on Wednesday evening. Mayor Segarra was not present at the hearing; he was represented by the Deputy Corp Counsel.
The so-called “tireless” and” vigorous” discussions that have been happening between the City and entities like the Governor’s office demystify this sudden turn, but one has to wonder how it is possible for such disunity to be present at both the ConnDOT and City of Hartford.
On Monday, a series of emails hinted that some deal may have been in the works:
These email exchanges make it appear as though some agreement had been reached, yet in a message from Deller on Tuesday afternoon, he said that as of Monday evening, “there was no deal.”
The bumbling of the City and DOT did not seem impress Ms. Almeida, who at Wednesday’s hearing asked several times, “Who’s going to handle the questions on the agreement,” specifically concerned with if there was “anybody capable of answering questions about the last paragraph” of Mayor Segarra’s letter.
Though Anna Barry, the Deputy DOT Commissioner, claimed that “these are very precise words chosen very carefully” while looking over Segarra’s letter, she stumbled through an inadequate explanation which directly contradicted that provided by one of her DOT colleagues. Looking at the letter, she declared that “up-and-over” is “not an option;” another DOT employee previously stated at this hearing that there would be further discussion of that as an option. It was said that the 9a.m. hearing on May 9th would also include a presentation by the DOT about the alleged dangers of the crossing at Flower Street, along with the “benefits of the pathway” being built.
To date, the DOT has not provided a shred of data or any other reliable evidence to prove that allowing pedestrians and cyclists to continue using Flower Street would present them with irrefutable danger.
As one employee claimed the letter was clear, another said that the DOT “doesn’t have much more than this letter” to go on regarding the agreement. Van Norden began by saying that the letter was “an understanding” and that he wasn’t “sure” that he “would call it an agreement.” Later, he changed his wording when describing this backroom deal.
On Twitter, locals have called it “selling out constituents.”
What has been evident during this process is that nobody from City or State seems familiar with the area in question, relying on residents to inform them. A DOT employee claimed that the “pathway” which goes between Flower and Broad creates a safe alternative, as cyclists would wind up on a “ten foot” sidewalk on Broad. The reality is that this sidewalk is too narrow for more than one user at a time, covered in trap rock, a cage, and is wholly useless in mitigating the problems created by blocking Flower Street.
In an attempt to distract those speaking at the hearing, one DOT employee kept asking irrelevant questions related to bicycle racks on buses and on the ground, implying that cyclists could just pop the bikes on buses and have their problems solved. Despite multiple attempts to educate her and others in the room that the busway, which runs east-to-west, would not alleviate the issue of blocked north-south access, she carried on.
Jennifer Cassidy of the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association criticized Mayor Segarra’s acquiescence, saying “I don’t see in here any dollars, any time frames.”
Cassidy, who spoke on record, said that the reason she and another neighborhood leader were “late is because it took almost fifteen minutes to get on the highway” due to the increased traffic that has resulted from motor vehicle traffic pushed off Flower Street.
David Corrigan, Chair of the Frog Hollow NRZ“, was also concerned about the letter, saying that there has been no statement, no acknowledgement of the harm done to this neighborhood by the busway. He added that since Segarra’s letter was handed to him just as he walked into the hearing room, it was “impossible” for him to comment.
Christopher Brown, speaking in capacity as Vice President of Bike Walk Connecticut said “we accepted and abided by the original ruling” that closed Flower Street to motorized traffic. Since this time, the Dunkin Donuts at Capitol and Flower/Lawrence has been sold because the previous owner saw a drop in profits since the Flower Street closure to traffic. Other area businesses, Brown said, have suffered roughly a 10% loss since implementation of the DOT’s previous ruling. Despite the neighborhood having to endure this, he said that it seems the DOT has never “acknowledged or addressed concerns about cyclist safety” which would be the next thing impacted if the DOT were to change its ruling to order the shutdown of this small side street to pedestrian and cyclist use.
Community members have speculated that this agreement is a transparent attempt to appease anyone who might potentially withhold funds from the City of Hartford, but the City has gotten no guarantee of a single thing in return.
Ms. Almeida turned this to the others at the DOT: “What happens if the funding [to build an actual structure which would mitigate the north-south closure] is never in place?”
The next dog and pony show will take place at the Department of Transportation on the Berlin Turnpike in Newington on May 9th at 9a.m. Those who cannot attend may send written testimony to Ms. Almeida. She asks that it be submitted within the next week.
While the City of Hartford has folded, community members have not indicated that they are backing down.