On Thursday, March 22, the Connecticut Department of Transportation presented it's latest plan for removing traffic lights from Route 9. The meeting was open to the public, and close to two hundred interested residents attended to listen to the presentation. About two dozen individuals asked questions and made statements. Information on the official presentation can be found here, and some dissenting opinions can be found here, here and here.
1. It's only a proposal but the DOT has already begun negotiating property rights. One would assume, when one is told that the projects presented by the DOT were "only proposals," and had not been approved, that the DOT wouldn't be doing things like negotiating the purchase of property on Rapallo Avenue, where a highway off-ramp would be built. But they are. What's more, for two parts of the project, sidewalk bump-outs on Main Street, and intersection improvements in St. John's Square, the start dates are Spring and Summer of 2019. "We already have funding for those projects," the DOT spokesperson said.
2. When you spend 15-20 minutes of a presentation explaining anti-discrimination law, you should probably make a decent effort not to appear discriminatory. As several of the commenters pointed out, solving the problem of traffic lights on Route 9 seems to be borne most heavily by residents of the North End of Middletown, as Izzi Greenberg said in her presentation: "This neighborhood is home to the densest population of People of Color and is the lowest-income census tract in Middletown. It is no surprise that they bear the heaviest burden, as projects like this typically favor higher-income people over low-income people. From a social justice perspective, the worst aspects of this plan are that: It prioritizes the safety and health of people in cars over the safety and health of people who live in this dense downtown neighborhood by forcing more traffic on to residential streets. And instead of reducing the already overwhelming crush of cars that cut through North End streets, it appears to be poised to increase the load." Former NEAT leader Precious Price, a North End resident, also noted that the DOT made no effort to speak with any of the organizations that represent minority North End residents.
3. Well, if the DOT didn't meet with North End residents, who did they meet with? If the list of thank-you's at the beginning of the DOT presentation is any indication, the DOT spent the past two years consulting with Mayor Dan Drew, the city's Economic Development Commission, the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce, Director of Planning Joe Samolis, the Middletown Police Department and the Jonah Center's Jon Hall.
4. Okay, so what did the representatives from those organizations say at the presentation to convince city residents that the projects were a good idea. The mayor, in a very short opening statement, thanked the DOT for their hard work, and for listening to residents after the last version of these plans was presented in 2016. He said that the DOT had done a tremendous job on their proposal. While Gerry Daley from the Economic Development Commission was in attendance, he did not speak, nor did the representatives from the Chamber of Commerce. The Chief of Police did not attend, nor did anyone from the traffic department. The Director of Planning did not attend. And the head of the Jonah Center did not attend.
5. Well, then, who from the city government did attend?
- Council member Seb Giuliano spoke strongly against the proposal saying sarcastically that the DOT did not have enough money to do the job right, so they were taking what money they had and doing it wrong.
- Council member Gene Nocera expressed grave doubts about the effect on increased traffic in the North end near Macdonough Elementary School.
- Council member Phil Pessina repeatedly asked DOT presenters to consider the reality that with increased vehicle traffic on Main Street, much of that traffic would find it's way on cut-through streets in the North End, seeking a shorter route to Route 66.
- State Rep. Matt Lesser, a North End resident questioned why the start day was just months away, if the project was not yet approved.
- Chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission, Stephen Devoto spoke and cited the city's plan of development in condemning the DOT plan. He said: "Because this project negatively impacts economic development and neighborhood vitality, I strongly oppose it. We need to strengthen the businesses around Main Street, not burden them with traffic. And we need to promote the quality of life in our urban residential neighborhoods, not place a highway offramp in their midst." (Devoto noted that he spoke as an individual and was not representing the Planning and Zoning Commission.)
Council members Gerry Daley, Rob Blanchard and Linda Salafia were present. Chris Drake, Board of Education chair and a North End resident was there. Council member Bob Santangelo, deputy mayor and North End resident, who is running for the State House of Representatives was absent. Sean King and Deborah Cain from the BOE were there. Noticeably absent were our other current legislators, some of whom are seeking re-election, or election to a different seat, and other notable candidates (Doyle, Serra, Bysiewicz, Suzio). Quentin Phipps, city treasurer and North End resident is running for state repwas there. No other members of the city Planning and Zoning Commission attended.
In addressing the DOT officials at the presentation Democratic Town Committee member and College Street resident Steve Smith said: "You have a very difficult issue to deal with, but our local elected officials have a very simple one, they need to oppose this plan because it is bad for our city."
6. So, when the DOT met with the Middletown BOE and school administrators to talk about how traffic might affect Mcdonough Elementary School, what did they tell them? The DOT did not meet with the Middletown BOE or school administrators.
7. So when the DOT met with the Planning and Zoning Commission what did they tell them? The DOT did not meet with the Planning and Zoning Commission, but they did meet with the Director of Planning.
8. So merchants on Main Street must be delighted to have more traffic passing their places of business. Members of the Downtown Business District voted disapproval of the plan.
9. Currently a significant portion of peak morning traffic moving toward Route 66 (Washington Street) from the Arrigoni Bridge and Route 9, and peak afternoon traffic headed in the other direction seeks short cuts through Middletown's North End on "cut-through" streets (Grand, Spring, Prospect, Liberty, High, Pearl). Was the DOT concerned that additional traffic on Main would force more traffic onto side streets? The DOT showed no traffic moving through side streets, and representatives said that despite the increase in traffic on Main, the traffic flow would be so good there that no one would seek short cuts through the North End.
10. Were there any surprises in the presentation of the projects? There were two, actually. For many years, residents of Bridge Street have complained that their access to the city is cut off, and that entering and leaving their neighborhood using Route 9 is very dangerous. They have been told that opening the intersection at Bridge and Portland Streets, where there is a railroad crossing, would be impossible because the train crossing at street grade level is too dangerous. On Thursday night DOT presenter Will Britnell said that to make the plan they were presenting work, Bridge Street would have to be closed off from Route 9, and that the intersection at Bridge and Portland Streets would be opened, because there didn't seem to be anything obstructing such a re-opening. Britnell expressed astonishment that he had never considered how school buses had to access Bridge Street from Route 9 on a daily basis. "I never considered that," Britnell said.
Britnell was also responsible for one other surprise. After citing statistical evidence for accidents and traffic loads, he said that because of current traffic patterns "people avoid Middletown." That must be news to all those folks on Friday and Saturday nights filling up the restaurants on Main Street.
11. How many times was New Britain cited as an example of how DOT highway planning can ruin a city's downtown. Twice.
12. Why you shouldn't count on the ten o'clock news for accurate reporting in your town. Fox 61, and other broadcast stations were at the DOT presentation, but only Channel 61 stayed to the bitter end. The Fox reporter did a live shot from Fox 61 after the meeting and said that "the plan is expected to cost $3 million." She was only off by $72 million.