Saturday, March 31, 2018

Commuters vs. Downtown

Still thinking about the DOT's Route 9 plan?  The Middletown Eye got this anonymous comment at 9:17 am:

Commuters are taxpayers too. We live in Middletown because of family and affordability but have to commute a great distance. It’s hurtful to say commuters aren’t people too. No one commutes by choice! Agreed these plans stink! But can’t there be a compromise? People who have the luxury to bike or walk to work have no idea how dangerous the lights on the highway are. The solution to detour traffic to main Street, the rotaries, or the wall blocking the river are all bad, but there’s gotta be a better way than no fix at all.

I’ve been thinking both about Anonymous @ 9:17’s comment and the comments I've seen on the various Facebook threads on this topic, especially one that asked why the people protesting the plan didn’t care about the rights of taxpayers (in that case, I think, meaning taxpayers who live in town but commute to Hartford in rush hour traffic).

The DOT has now withdrawn the plan and will likely be back someday with another.  So I think it’s worth asking:   Was this really a battle between commuters vs. Downtown Middletown?  And if it was, should it be?

I think it is in the best interest of all Middletown taxpayers (and the state of Connecticut) to ensure that our downtown has the best shot at fulfilling its potential. One reason is that the business taxpayers in Downtown Middletown subsidize our school system, our police department and the lifestyle of single-family home owners (roads, parks, etc).   That’s true of all commercial property - it  pays more in taxes than the cost of the services it consumes - but it is especially true of downtown because of the density of our value.

I also think that vital small towns are the critical ingredient in the next phase of our economic prosperity. Maybe that sounds overblown - but I mean it sincerely. If our town centers are walkable and interesting and diverse, we stand the best chance of recruiting and retaining the millennials and empty-nesters who have been fleeing our state, to the detriment of our quality-of-life and the state coffers.  Our downtown is a place where people of different income levels and backgrounds can share a neighborhood and a decent quality of life. The appeal of this lifestyle is driving the national trend of people choosing to move to or stay in the urban core.  It's not always perfect - it takes cooperation and communication to balance all of our needs - but neither is the segregated world that we live in.   Situations like the DOT proposal show how vulnerable this neighborhood is to those who don’t see our worth in the big picture of Connecticut’s future.

I think Middletown is very fortunate to have had citizens in the past who protected our downtown.  They spoke up to stop previous ill-considered plans on Route 9, and protested against plans to destroy the South Green, demolish blocks of downtown, etc, etc, etc.   The citizens against these types of plans don’t always win, but have won enough in the past that Middletown still has a viable Main Street, which is something that you can say about very few places in Connecticut unless they are largely white and affluent.

Perhaps - and there is no way to measure this - but perhaps the presence of lights on Route 9, which force drivers to slow down and notice they are actually in a town, has been one factor of that survival.   I think most people would agree that, economically speaking, our downtown has made a lot of progress in the past 20 years, despite the DOT claim that people avoid Middletown because of the lights.  Sure, we'd like to do better - but compared to our peers, we've come a long way since the severe downturn of the early 1990's.     

It’s pretty clear that having a high-speed highway with exits to downtown didn’t do anything to save Meriden or New Britain, which became centers of blight. I would argue that it hasn’t been so great for towns like Rocky Hill, Wethersfield, Wallingford, and others who saw their downtowns atrophy and still often have bumper-to-bumper traffic on those high-speed highways as it is.   And maybe the towns south of Middletown - like Essex, Chester & Haddam - are so charming in part because the lights have spared them from the sprawl of condo complexes and big box stores that are in ample supply in the towns to the north of the lights.

Here's the thing:  there are more cars at rush-hour than Route 9 can comfortably handle without any back-up.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the lights have to go, because the capacity of the road is just fine the rest of the time.   What it does mean is that we have a problem at rush-hour.  We could ask those commuters to tolerate this bit of delay, like they tolerate the delay once they hit Route 91 or 95 where there are no lights at all, or perhaps there are other solutions.   Maybe it's not one answer but a few - like smart traffic lights or transit options - that could lessen congestion without the enormous cost of highway construction and the resulting loss to our tax base and future growth - especially the potential of our riverfront.

This DOT plan pitted the short term interest of commuters against the long-term value of downtown, and therefore, the future of the suburban lifestyle that many in Middletown enjoy.  We should not let the DOT divide us, just because they have a little bit of funding to spend and a political need to appear like they’re getting something done, regardless of the consequences.

In the heat of the past two weeks I regret that my own rhetoric sometimes made it sound like I think the people of the suburbs are the enemy of the people downtown, or that this town's success is at odds with the economy of the whole county.  My real beef is with the failed old idea that the solution to a busy highway is a bigger highway, regardless of who is in the way.

Of course, some people want to get rid of the lights because they are tired of sitting in summer afternoon beach traffic. Those people, I say #FirstWorldProblems.


Elisabeth Holder said...

I am pleased to hear the idea that we should not let the DOT divide us into two groups that are supposed to represent separate and irreconcilable opinions. The main focus of everyone should be to help reduce congestion on route 9 while preserving the vitality of Main Street in Middletown. We have come too far in the last few decades to give in to dogmatic approaches and arguments.

I am not convinced that eliminating the lights on Route 9 will cause all problems to disappear with them. I worry that the accidents on route 9 will move instead onto Main Street, which will be wider with more-rapidly-moving traffic. As Jen says, faster-moving traffic in Meriden and New Britain does not seem to have solved all problems north and south of those cities. I do not know what the answer to the current dilemma might be, but the proposed plan did not seem likely to work particularly well.

However, it is certainly worth noting some of the problems and solutions that were mentioned in comments at the recent hearing. I would like to offer some of them along with some of my own solutions that could be implemented before the Route 9 master plan is arrived at.

1. Since the state now believes that Miller Street and Bridge Street can be safely accessed from the opposite side of the railroad tracks, please do it now. Concrete Jersey barriers could be placed along the intersection with Route 9 and the alternative passage could be constructed this spring.

2. The right turn onto Spring Street at the base of the Arigoni Bridge is quite abrupt and dangerous. This could be obstructed and the intersection closed to all vehicles, except for right turns from Spring onto Main. That would prevent people from cutting across this dangerous intersection to get to the bridge or onto Hartford Avenue. It should also reduce the cut-through traffic that dismays and endangers residents of the North End.

3. Since the left turn from Grand Street onto Main is awkward and dangerous, Grand Street could be made into a one-way street heading west. This would eliminate vehicles cutting through the neighborhood to go north and east, while still allowing access to the neighborhood. The east-west side streets on the other side of Washington Street are one way with parking along both sides. This could be done north of Washington, too.

4. If Grand Street becomes one-way going west, Liberty Street could become one-way going east. This would reduce the advantage of cutting through the neighborhood going west and north, since there would be only a one block advantage to taking Washington Street as the major route east and north from downtown.

I am no traffic engineer and there may be many problems with these ideas, but I'm hopeful that we in Middletown can come up with solutions that work for us, cooperating with the state where our interests converge and negotiating the best possible solutions for all where our interests do not. There is no reason why some of the solutions to traffic congestion cannot begin now with constructive discussion and imaginative input from all who would like to participate.

Anonymous said...

I lived on Main Street for 6 years. I moved out of Middletown because of the traffic, not just on Route 9 but on Main and Washington. Any vibrancy the downtown area has regained over the years still didn't make up for how difficult it was even to get in or out of my building's parking lot on my way to and from work.