The Town Hall meeting room was full Tuesday night as hundreds from Greenwich and nearby towns turned out for a Connecticut Dept of Transportation “ConnDOT” presentation on a possible Merritt Parkway Mixed Use Trail.
ConnDOT officials Michael Calabrese and project engineer Michael Cherpak said they were neither in favor of, nor opposed to the project, but rather present to explain the proposal and collect feedback. There was plenty.
The state of Connecticut owns a 300 ft right-of-way on the Merritt, of which only a third to a half is used for the road.
The proposed 37 mile long trail would be 10 ft wide and made of asphalt with gravel shoulders. It would be built in the state right-of-way along south side of the Merritt Parkway. Overall, 63% of the trail would be at-grade, 16% with retaining walls, and 21% with bridges or boardwalks.
Though the proposal features tunnels in some towns, there are no tunnels in the segments that pass through Greenwich. The land is not flat, and the trail would have to clear a number of historic bridges, grade crossings and waterways. The trail would serpentine in steep slopes, which was described as “switchbacks.”
The trail would pass through Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Norwalk, Westport, Fairfield, Trumbull and Stratford.
When Michael Calabrese of the ConnDOT shared a slide stating the estimated cost as ranging from $200 million to $250 million, there were a few gasps. “That’s a quarter of a billion dollars,” someone said.
Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei said that by not undertaking maintenance, CONNDot puts an unfunded mandate on towns, specifically litter pickup. “To depend on volunteer groups 24/7 is a fallacy,” he said.
Tesei: “Unfunded Mandates”
Mr. Tesei said Greenwich first responders have been subjected to exposure and liability, and that the municipality is not reimbursed by the state. “Now we’re adding a new piece of infrastructure. I assume we’d be required to respond to any type of emergency or need for help. Another unfunded mandate.”
Tesei also touched on security concerns. He said believed the vast majority of Greenwich residents think the multi-use trail is ill-conceived.
During the public comment segment, negative comments outnumbered the positive, but both sides were well represented. The Merritt Parkway Trail Alliance, a group which favors the trail urges supporters to contact CONNDot.
One young woman who spoke in favor of the project, referred to Greenwich residents’ “resistance to change,” and was laughed at.
Vince DiMarco spoke in favor of the proposed trail. “Go right over the Westchester line and you’ll find trails that are very well used and popular. Up the line in Connecticut you’ll find trails that are very popular…”
“Young people want these sort of amenities. I’m disappointed with the closed-mindedness here,” DiMarco said.
Mike Norris, a Stamford resident and founder of DIYBiking.com said he had ridden his bike to the Stamford train station, gotten off with his folding bicycle in Greenwich and ridden to the meeting.
“This is Greenwich and you have a serious car problem here,” Norris said. “I can’t count how many times I have sat in my car in Greenwich and watched the light go from red to green and back again without being able to move through the intersection…If you are not going to support the trail, please be in support of something.”
“Too many folks act like cyclists drop out of the sky but most of them are riding because they aren’t driving,” Norris wrote to Greenwich Free Press in an email after the meeting.
“When I ride, somebody else gets my parking space and there is one less car likely to block the box or just get in the way,” Norris continued. “And a town that is slowly paralyzing itself has to build bike infrastructure. If ten people drive downtown today and just one takes a bike tomorrow, traffic will move easier for the other nine; its that simple!
Fraklin Bloomer, former chair of the town’s land use committee, spoke in support of the trail. He disagreed with Mrs. Hull and Mr. Tesei’s claim that there is a lack of support in the town. “This is a town very much into cycling, very much into health, and all the things the trail will provide. I think the support is there.”
Other speaking out against the proposal included First Selectman Peter Tesei, Michael Chambers the director of Greenwich Inland Wetlands and Watercourses, and heads of neighborhood associations including Mark Pruner for Round Hill Association and Ted Walworth of the Northeast Greenwich Association.
Pruner said he had not heard of a single person in favor of the proposed trail. “I would ask you to resolve this as quickly as possible,” he said. “You all have better things to do to help our transportation system. I’d like to free your time up so you can do that.”
Walworth reported an overwhelming concern of residents for their safety. He asked how the project would take away habitat and impact native species like the New England Cottontail. He asked whether the amount of impervious surface had been calculated, and suggested that might impact drainage. Lastly, he expressed concern about the cost of the project. “How can a state that is in debt take on such debt?”
Inland Wetlands and Watercourses director Greenwich expressed concerns about installing a trail in the area of Burning Tree Club, where, he said there already are there are already significant draw issues.
“So my concern in that area is where boardwalk crossings are called for, what would happen in the event of a washout during a significant storm, and the town would have to allocate emergency services staff if the project creates a dam effect?” Chambers asked.
Chambers went on to say he was concerned about accessibility for construction crews. “How do you get machines into this area?” he asked.
“We don’t want it,” said Mary Hull, longtime director of Greenwich Green & Clean. Mrs. Hull said people envision being outdoors for fresh air, but that along the Merritt they would be breathing in fumes. She also expressed concern about who would maintain the trails, since that is not domain of CONNDot.
Real estate attorney Jane Hogeman and past president of Greenwich Land Trust also criticized the removal of trees to make way for the trail.
“You’re going to be losing a large percentage of the (tree) canopy. How much of the canopy would be lost?” she asked Mr. Calabrese. “That is a very important matter to the people who live near the Merritt Parkway because of the fumes, the noise and the light from the Merritt make an enormous impact on property values and quality of life,” she said. “And it’s got to mean for people driving their cars on the Merritt Parkway, it’s got to be a big distraction to drivers to lose that tree buffer and have that distraction on the side.”
“There is nowhere (in Greenwich) to get on the trail without intruding into residential neighborhoods… Why not just start at the Stamford border and leave Greenwich out of the mix=?” – Real estate attorney, and former president of Greenwich Land Trust Jane Hogeman
Jessie Bennett introduced herself as a state prosecutor in the Hartford area, where there are a lot of trails, but they are rural and are near reservoirs. The prosecutor, who lives in Fairfield County, said, “They find their way to assault people and burglarize homes. And what I’m afraid of is there are a lot of children who live along the Merritt Parkway and they will have easy access to get to these children.”
Jill Smith, president of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy said the price tag was high and that the money could better be used for safety improvements and historic bridge restoration work. She urged residents to contact the DOT to voice opposition to the trail.
Mr. Calabrese of CONNDot said his department had reached out to mayors and police chiefs in towns where trails exist and that none had reported an increase in crime.
Louisa Stone asked who makes the final decision about whether the trail goes forward. Calabrese said the decision would be taken by either the commissioner of the CONNDot Commissioner or the Governor’s office.