2006 NEWS

Articles (including letters to editor) - pro and con are listed below. 

New chief says he'll get DOT moving 10/22/6
DOT, Merritt group meet to jump-start interchange 9/29/6
Route 7's saga of ups and downs a curious tale 9/29/6
Rell pushes for interchange solution 8/30/6
Acknowledge the need for interchange 4/16/6
Merritt Parkway work is stopped: Redesign planned for interchange 4/11/6
Rte 7 Blame Game:  Letters to the  Editor 2/17/6
Not Opting Out:  Letters to the  Editor 2/15/6
Lawmaker is right to champion Super 7 2/7/6
SWRPA takes the middle lane on Route 7 plan 1/28/6

2008 news        2007 news       2006 news         2005 news         before 2005

New chief says he'll get DOT moving
By Mark Ginocchio, Staff Writer October 22, 2006
            top of page
BRIDGEPORT -- Promising he'll push the state Department of Transportation to plan and finish projects more quickly, Ralph Carpenter, the agency's newly appointed commissioner, talked about some of his goals with transit planners and advocates in Fairfield County this week.

In one of his first public addresses since being appointed DOT commissioner in July, Carpenter, 54, said the agency and its partners instead must now start working more efficiently during these "exciting but challenging times" for the state's transportation system.

"We should not form committees to go down these long endless tunnels to figure something out," Carpenter said during a Bridgeport meeting of the Coastal Corridor Transportation Investment Area, an advisory group to the Transportation Strategy Board. "I can be commissioner for five years and never see the end of it. The length of some of these projects is almost embarrassing."

Known by many state politicians as a reformer during his year as commissioner of the state Department of Motor Vehicles, Carpenter, a Canton resident, said he has already exhibited his philosophy when he met last month with the Merritt Parkway Conservancy to talk about the future of the Merritt-Route 7 interchange in Norwalk -- a project that has been stalled for months.

The key to this approach is to be thick-skinned and open to criticism, Carpenter said.
"I read every single complaint that comes into the agency," he said. "I don't have to do that. But there are some larger issues out there where we would never make a phone call to people, and sometimes that's all it took."

Carpenter said he will lean heavily on his staff, including his two new deputy commissioners James Boice, former interim bureau chief in DOT's rail bureau, and Raeanne Curtis, former chief of staff at the Department of Public Works.
A third deputy commissioner --a new position created by the state -- will focus on mass transit and transit-oriented development.

The department has received 26 applications for the new position. Carpenter couldn't say when someone would be hired but said, "this won't languish. I want to get it off my deck."
Carpenter said he relishes his role as a public servant. Before heading the DOT and DMV, Carpenter served the Department of Public Safety for 25 years in various roles.

His career may have been defined last year after a fatal truck accident on Route 44 in Avon led to a statewide crackdown on motor carriers with poor safety records, Carpenter said. Gov. M. Jodi Rell released lists of trucking companies with bad safety records, and targeted them for additional inspections. She also signed a bill toughening state laws governing insurance coverage for trucking companies; it created a new class D felony for the owner of a commercial vehicle who knowingly operates without insurance.
Though the Rell administration has received some criticism from Democrats for not going far enough with truck safety, Carpenter praised the state's response.  "I don't think I would be here today if I failed in handling that," he said.

On the issue of truck safety, Carpenter said the image of trucks using the state's highways to deliver goods is a sign of a productive economy, but the DOT must also look at ways to take trucks off the roads -- possible barges or rail freight.

Asked what his single biggest priority is, Carpenter wouldn't name one, instead opting to give his vision for long-term prosperity for the state's transportation system.

"To ensure whatever projects we are chasing, that it is an integrated project with surrounding towns and surrounding modes of transportation, as opposed to doing things in a vacuum," Carpenter said.

TIA members said afterward that Carpenter presented himself well, even if he lacks transportation experience.

"I thought he was refreshing," said Joseph McGee, vice president of public policy for the Business Council of Fairfield County. "He's not a transportation policy expert, but he has strong management credentials. He seems to be very open."

DOT, Merritt group meet to jump-start interchange
By Mark Ginocchio, Staff Writer    Norwalk Advocate
September 29, 2006   
            top of page
For the first time since a federal judge's ruling halted construction at the Merritt Parkway-Route 7 interchange in Norwalk, state officials and parkway preservationists met yesterday to discuss possible solutions so the project can resume next year.

Officials from the state Department of Transportation and Merritt Parkway Conservancy described the meeting as productive and amicable, and they plan to get together again next month to discuss design proposals for the site.

"The commissioner (Ralph Carpenter) thought hearing the concerns of the conservancy was very enlightening," DOT spokesman Chris Cooper said. "It was encouraging that all parties agreed that the project is a necessity."

Carpenter, newly appointed Deputy Commissioner James Boice and DOT's chief engineer Art Gruhn represented the agency at the meeting, which was ordered by Gov. M. Jodi Rell last month.

Conservancy executive director Laurie Heiss was optimistic after the meeting, and said she was encouraged that DOT representatives are willing to show "some flexibility for change," she said.

The conservancy, and other local and national preservation groups blocked the state's interchange construction plans earlier this year with a civil lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New Haven.

The two-phase, $98 million project would have connected the parkway to Route 7 to and from the east in Norwalk. The first phase was supposed to widen the parkway interchange at Main Avenue and the Glover Avenue bridge. The second phase would construct cloverleaf ramps, fully connecting the two roads.

The conservancy said the design violated federal preservation law because it would destroy historic bridges and landscaping on the Merritt and install tall lighting fixtures that would harm the parkway's aesthetics.

The Merritt Parkway is on the National Register of Historic Places, an official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation.

In April, a federal judge ruled the state and Federal Highway Administration did not fully explore alternative construction plans before agreeing on the contested design. He suggested both sides work together before the DOT restarts the project next year, but there had been no meeting until yesterday.

The DOT told the conservancy yesterday it would not be able to radically change the design because it must abide by the "purpose and need" statement that is attached to the project during the application for federal funding.

This statement, which was not available yesterday, details features of the project that can not be changed or federal funds would be lost, Cooper said.

Despite having no updated design in place, the state is optimistic that construction can restart in Norwalk this April, he said.

The interchange has remained a priority for the DOT and was recently included in the engineering and highway operations bureau's Top 10 initiatives presentation, given to the state Transportation Strategy Board.

Route 7's saga of ups and downs a curious tale
Editorial, Norwalk Hour     9/29/06                                       
            top of page
There's news on Route 7 these days --:- both the new, incomplete one, and the old one that winds through Wilton.  Surveyors are marking out in Wilton where the old route will be widened and trees will be marked for removal. The hope is that actual road construction will begin by the end of the year.

The project is expected to cost $35 million, according to Department of Transportation officials.

The widening project is expected to cause lane closures, not good news to commuters who use the old highway. But, as they say; you have to break an egg to make an omelet. The work is designed to lessen congestion on the busy road and
has been hailed by some as a compromise to extending the Route 7 connector through Wilton and eventually on to Danbury.

As is the case with most compromises, it falls short of the mark. The better alternative would have been to extend the connector, but that probably will never happen, even though the state owns the right-of-way from one end of the town to the other.

Meanwhile, Brookfield residents -who have dealt with congestion on the old route through that town can take heart that the DOT is finally ready to proceed on a bypass that will bring the traffic around the center of town. Bids will be sought on the project, which began 30 years ago.

The two-mile stretch of highway will bypass Four Corners, connecting the new Route 7 in Brookfield with the newly expanded Route 7 at the New Milford line.   So, there are different types of progress on Route 7 one rehabilitating the old road while another forges a segment of the long hoped-for highway.

That brings us to another Route 7 topic - that part of it in Norwalk and northward where utility work has left a decent road with a less-than-desirable roadbed that jars commuters as they bounce their way over the patchwork paving.
The original plan was that the road would be paved extensively, restoring it to its original state.

Anyone who has driven the road can attest that the repairs fall far short of the mark. What puzzles us is how DOT can just accede to Connecticut Light & Power Co.'s position that the repaving isn't needed. We put up with the inconvenience because we know the work was needed to bring more electricity to this power-starved area. We did expect, however, that the utility would live up to its word and properly restore the road in Norwalk, a road that was only repaved a few years ago. 

Rell pushes for interchange solution
By Mark Ginocchio, Staff Writer     August 30, 2006   
            top of page

Gov. M. Jodi Rell directed the state Department of Transportation yesterday to meet with Merritt Parkway preservationists to settle their dispute over the design of the Route 7-Merritt interchange in Norwalk.

Rell is calling on her new DOT commissioner and two deputy commissioners to come up with a plan. The project has been stalled since last year, when the Merritt Parkway Conservancy sued the federal government, saying the interchange design would damage the parkway's historic character.

"This project has been halted for far too many months," Rell said in a letter to DOT Commissioner Ralph Carpenter, whom she appointed last month. "Those who use and need this interchange have waited long enough."

A federal judge ruled in favor of the conservancy earlier this year, forcing the DOT and the Federal Highway Administration to develop a new design.

The plan for the interchange, which would connect the parkway to Route 7 to and from the east in Norwalk, was in development for more than 10 years and was approved by all the proper state and environmental authorities, DOT officials testified.

The Merritt Parkway is on the National Register of Historic Places, an official list of cultural resources deemed worthy of preservation. During the civil trial, the plaintiffs, which included the conservancy, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, other preservation groups and landowners, sought an alternate plan that would not damage parkway bridges and landscaping.

The groups filed suit last year after appealing to the DOT and Rell during public hearings.

Since the DOT announced it would develop a new design in time to start construction next spring, no one at the agency has met with the conservancy, said Leigh Grant, co-executive director of the group.

The group sent several letters to the DOT and Rell asking to be included in design discussions, Grant said. The conservancy remains in favor of finishing the interchange, Grant said.

"We're very pleased to have even this small crack in the door opened," she said.

DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said the agency looks at the directive in a similar way.

"We're viewing this directive from the governor as an opportunity to move the project forward," Nursick said in a statement.

If the discussion becomes unproductive, the state will ask the court to expedite the case so the project can progress, Rell said.

"The state is open to design recommendations that support the goals of maximizing public safety and traffic flow in a manner that is also sensitive to the environment and the aesthetic and historical concerns in a project involving this landmark parkway," she said.

Acknowledge the need for interchange
April 16, 2006                                 
            top of page

The decision this week to halt the Route 7/Merritt Parkway interchange project is a big win for preservationists who feel it would violate the highway's historic character.

But it won't be much of a win for anyone if the undertaking drags on much longer. As it is, work has been stalled for months. State Department of Transportation officials say they hope it can resume around this time next year. But given the way this project has gone from the start, that's probably wishful thinking.

The state this week scrapped its construction contract with a Torrington-based firm after a judge ruled the DOT and the Federal Highway Administration hadn't proved the plan would minimize the impact to the parkway, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Preservationists last year sued in U.S. District Court in New Haven to have the plan changed, contending it would wrongly damage four historic bridges and landscaping. The state and federal agencies must now work to come up with a new design.

Plaintiffs say they hope they will have a larger say in creating a new plan than they have in the past. They believe it is possible to create a satisfactory interchange while better protecting the highway's heritage.

The preservationists are right that the parkway must be protected. It is a vital part of our state's distinctive character. And they are right that development has to proceed carefully. Eyes that look to the future must also look to the past.

But this is not a case of ripping down historic homes or buildings so a developer can slap up condos or a strip mall. The Merritt has great aesthetic value, but it also has an important utilitarian one, and it has to be able to do its job. The interchange is needed to improve traffic flow, which will improve safety and serve the region economically.

There is a real danger here that the interchange project will go the way of the efforts build a Super 7 highway from Norwalk to Danbury. Opponents have been able to block that plan for decades while traffic grips the region a little tighter every year.

The need for the Merrit/Route 7 interchange was identified more than 10 years ago. It certainly hasn't diminished since that time. Just as the state and federal agencies have to show good faith and work with conservationists in creating a new plan, conservationists need to demonstrate they are willing to let the project go forward once a new plan is achieved.

And they have to realize that the project will include changes. There is no way to keep the roadway just like it was envisioned when ground was broken in 1934. The mere force of population has seen to that. What could be further from the road's original character than have it burst at the seams with long lines of cars?

Sometimes the best way to allow something to retain its character is to allow it to grow. The trick is finding the balance. That's rarely easy, but both sides in this case have to show they are committed to it. And they have to do it quickly.

Merritt Parkway work is stopped: Redesign planned for interchange
By Mark Ginocchio, Staff Writer          April 11, 2006                         top of page
The state Department of Transportation has agreed to rethink construction plans for the Route 7-Merritt Parkway interchange in Norwalk, delaying the project indefinitely and handing a victory to preservationists who said the work would ruin the parkway's historical character.

The agency terminated its contract with O&G Industries Inc. of Torrington for the $98 million project that would have connected the parkway to Route 7, DOT officials told a federal judge yesterday, according to court papers filed in U.S. District Court in New Haven.

Last week, the judge ruled that the Federal Highway Administration and the state did not provide sufficient evidence that they explored all options for minimizing harm to the parkway in building the interchange and the DOT decided it would be wasting taxpayers' money if it continued to pay the contractor, officials said.

The DOT "made this decision because the delays the contractor has experienced to date and may experience due to the severe restrictions placed upon the contractor's construction activities would expose the (DOT) and the state taxpayers to delay damage claims of approximately 5 million to 10 million dollars," according to court documents.

The state's original plan was challenged last year in U.S. District Court in New Haven by parkway preservationists who claimed construction would violate federal law by irreversibly damaging the historical character of the parkway, including four historic bridges and landscaping.

The Merritt Parkway is on the National Register of Historic Places, an official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation. The plaintiffs, which included the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other preservation groups and landowners, sought an alternate construction plan.

The groups filed suit last year after appealing to the DOT and Gov. M. Jodi Rell during public hearings.

Conservancy officials said yesterday they hope the state's decision to terminate the contract will give preservationists a chance to weigh in on the plan.

The state and Federal Highway Administration will work together to design an interchange that complies with federal preservation law, court papers said.

"Hopefully, this will result in a project that is good for commuters and respectful of the Merritt," said Laurie Heiss, executive director of the conservancy. "We would love to be a part of the process and will be happily standing by."

Conservancy Co-chairman Peter Malkin of Greenwich said "we tried our best to persuade (the DOT) that an efficient interchange could be achieved without the design they had been contemplating."

With construction stopped indefinitely, conservancy members want the state to restore some of the landscaping that was destroyed during early stages of construction, Malkin said.

DOT officials said their goal is to start construction as early as possible, perhaps after next year's construction season begins in April.

Last summer, DOT voluntary stopped construction on the interchange until a judge ruled on the civil case.

The state's plan has been under development for more than a decade. During court proceedings, DOT officials said the designs were approved by other state and environmental agencies, and public hearings were held in 1998 and 1999.

Rte 7 Blame Game:  Letters to the  Editor                    top of page 
Published February 17 2006 - Norwalk Advocate

Selectman William Brennan's position on widening Rte. 7 strikes me as yet another attempt by Town Hall politicians to demonize the Department of Transportation and blame it for the coming four years of snarled Rte. 7 traffic as three miles of the highway are widened from two to four lanes.

Brennan's attempt to deflect responsibility from Town Hall to the DOT for what promises to be an epic traffic bottleneck through 2009 is pure politics. There would be no real need to widen Rte. 7 through the heart of Wilton if Super 7 had been built as planned 30 years ago, when the right-of-way was acquired.

But as was pointed out on the front page of The Advocate last week, Wilton politicians have been "the primary opponents of the highway since it was conceptualized more than 50 year ago."

Indeed, Brennan, like his Republican predecessors, still considers Super 7 as a "threat," although a threat to what is never spelled out. Is a good highway system that enables residents to expeditiously get from A to B a threat? Does it reduce property values or enhance them? Who benefits from forcing both local and through traffic to use an antiquated highway that it appears will soon rival Rte. 1 in Norwalk in terms of commercial sprawl?

The Rte. 7 mess was ordained at Wilton Town Hall, not in Hartford. But I am sure Mr. Brennan will continue to pass the buck and complain vehemently about DOT foot dragging to distract the public from the real causes of the Rte. 7 fiasco.

And when the widening is finally finished, what will we have? A road that from Olmstead Hill Road north to Rte. 35 in Ridgefield will still be only two lanes! What do you think happens when you force four lanes of traffic down to two?

The famous comic strip philosopher, Walt Kelly's Pogo Possum, hit the nail on the head when he opined that, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Richard E. Elsberry

Not Opting Out:  Letters to the  Editor                               top of page 
Published February 15 2006 - Norwalk Advocate
The assertion that the South Western Regional Planning Agency decided "to opt out of the Super 7 debate" by not endorsing that project in our Regional Plan of Conservation and Development, 2006-2015 is illustrative of the fact that The Advocate, among others, has a very limited understanding of the transportation planning process (editorial, Feb. 7).

Plans of conservation and development like that which SWRPA's board adopted have essentially nothing to do with setting transportation priorities and even less to do with allocating funding for them. As prescribed by federal regulations, those responsibilities rest with SWRPA's sister organization, the South Western Region Metropolitan Planning Organization, whose voting members are the region's eight mayors and first selectmen and representatives of its three transit districts.

The official transportation priorities for the region are contained in the South Western Region Long-Range Transportation Plan, 2004-2030, which was adopted unanimously by the MPO in October 2004. It was my recommendation early on in the process of developing SWRPA's regional plan to defer to the MPO's transportation plan and not develop a parallel set of transportation priorities or cherry-pick recommendations out of that plan. Our board made the correct decision in this matter and focused its attention instead on issues such as land use, housing and natural resources, which are not seriously addressed in long-range transportation plans.

The appropriate time to lobby for or against Super 7 -- or any other project -- will be when the MPO begins its update of the current long-range plan, which will likely be later this year.

Robert H. Wilson
The writer is executive director of the South Western Regional Planning Agency.

Lawmaker is right to champion Super 7                             top of page 
Editorial, The Norwalk Advocate.  Published February 7, 2006
The South Western Regional Planning Agency's recent decision to opt out of the Super 7 debate illustrates that many wish the 50-year-old fight would just go away. That is why Bob Duff should be commended. The Democratic state senator from Norwalk has refused to let that happen.

Instead, Mr. Duff has been a persistent and vocal supporter of the plan, which would create a multi-lane expressway from Norwalk to Danbury and link interstates 95 and 84.

Calling the current Route 7 a safety hazard that functions well past capacity, the senator says the state will be guilty of neglect if it does not step up and build the new road. He also argues that the route hurts business because employees from outside the region have a hard time getting to work. The area around where Interstate 84 connects with Route 7 is one of the fastest growing in the state, and many of the people who are moving up there work in Norwalk, Stamford and Greenwich.

The fact that this debate dates back to the 1950s certainly supports Mr. Duff's contention that use has long outpaced the road's intended purpose. But it also underscores how difficult his fight can be. Starting a boulder rolling that has been sitting in place for half a century is not easy to do.

First among opponents has been the town of Wilton, which maintains that building a larger roadway would only bring more traffic. The project is also opposed by groups who say it would hurt the environment and those who say it would be too expensive.

The latest salvos were exchanged after Mr. Duff called for the project to be endorsed in SWRPA's Fourth Plan of Conservation and Development, a 10-year land-use and development strategy for the region.

"We're just going to have to drown him out and remind him of the damage this road would cause for our community," said Wilton First Selectman Bill Brennan. "It's only going to create more traffic ... and there is no money to build it."

Mr. Duff says opponents comprise a vocal minority that takes too narrow a view. "There needs to be more of a concerted effort to do what's right for the region and not cave in to one or two communities," he says.

Mr. Duff is right. Route 7 is one of many roads in our area, including Interstate 95 and the Merritt Parkway, that are often clogged to the point of being unbearable. Sitting still in a car as the clock ticks away and blood pressure rises is an experience all-to-familiar to everyone who drives here. But this issue is not a simple one. Both sides make valid points.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell has supported widening parts of Route 7, and says "I want to make sure there is no place in Connecticut you can't get to." But she will not back Super 7 while there is what she calls "strong opposition."

"If you just sit and wait for all people to get on base, then nothing will ever happen anywhere," says Mr. Duff, who has acknowledged that this is a difficult issue for some, including members of the SWRPA board.

"I just want to make sure that Super 7 plans are not being swept under the rug or completely ignored," he says.

It appears that as long as he's around, that will not be the case.

SWRPA takes the middle lane on Route 7 plan                         top of page 
By Mark Ginocchio, Staff Writer, Norwalk Advocate
Published January 28, 2006

The controversial Super 7 expressway will likely not be part of a regional development and conservation plan, despite mounting pressure from supporters to include it.

Robert Wilson, executive director of the South Western Regional Planning Agency, said Super 7 would be referred to as an "unfunded need" for the state, and it would not be actively endorsed or denounced when the agency votes on its Fourth Plan of Conservation and Development next week.

The middle-ground stance is consistent with the Metropolitan Planning Organization's long-range transportation plan, Wilson said, which is drawn up by the region's eight municipal leaders.

"I know the opponents of (Super 7) will probably not be too happy, but the proponents won't be either," Wilson said of the agency's decision.

SWRPA reviewed the final draft of its plan last week and expects to vote on it Friday, Wilson added. The plan looks to control sprawl by focusing development in areas with the infrastructure to handle it.

The decade-long fight about Super 7, a proposed super-highway connecting Norwalk to Danbury and Interstate 84, came to a head again late last year when Norwalk officials advocated inserting pro-Super 7 language in the SWRPA plan.

The proposal angered Wilton officials, who have been the primary opponents of the highway since it was conceptualized more than 50 years ago.

The SWRPA board delayed its vote on the plan to give elected officials more time to review the draft and make suggestions.

During that time, some Norwalk legislators continued to push for an outright Super 7 endorsement. Wilton officials said the expressway plan should be taken off the table because it lacks funding, has not received Gov. M. Jodi Rell's support and will likely never be completed.

After learning of SWRPA's decision, state Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said he understood the agency's compromise but was disappointed that there wasn't more of a push for Super 7.

"It would have been a bigger disappointment if Super 7 was taken off the table completely," Duff said. "There needs to be more of a concerted effort to do what's right for the region and not cave in to one or two communities."

Duff said transportation between Norwalk and Danbury must improve to accommodate the increasing economic development and population in the Route 7 corridor.

Wilton First Selectman Bill Brennan said he and other opponents will continue to fight off the calls to build Super 7.

"It's clear there wasn't a consensus to put it in this plan," Brennan said. "It doesn't belong in the conservation plan, and it doesn't even belong in the long-range plan."

As of last week, Brennan said he was unsure whether Wilton's representatives to SWRPA would be advised to support or reject the conservation plan.

Norwalk - Wilton, CT