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Westporter Urges Action to Reduce Congestion

042613 WSR Bernhard

042613 WSR  Griebel Levy
Ken Bernhard, Westport attorney and Co-Chair of the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters (CTLCV), told Westport Sunrise Rotary on Friday that “we should care about our state’s transportation system because it impacts our communities, our health and our environment,” and noted that this past week the Stamford-Bridgeport area was named the nation’s sixth worst for traffic congestion.

He introduced Kirsten Griebel, CTLCV’s Education Program Director. She presented an overview of the organization’s Citizens’ Transportation Guide that identified problems and offered solutions, and she issued a “Call to Action.”

Griebel echoed Bernhard, “we should care about the problem because it impacts our communities, it affects our economy and it affects our environment.” She noted that Connecticut has an old and heavily neglected transportation network, one that historically focused on accommodating private vehicles over public transit.

Moving forward, the CTLCV believes we must make cost effective transportation choices as we allocate increasingly limited state and federal funds. We must focus on adding jobs and growing the state’s economy, while also strengthening neighborhoods and communities, attending to health issues including asthma and obesity and protecting our environment by reducing carbon emissions and sprawl.

She presented a “connect the dots” plan that emphasizes rebuilding, but not significantly expanding our bridges and roads while adding capacity to the state’s public transit network. The Guide emphasizes mixed use development near a community’s transportation hubs and integrating transportation modes rather than expanding our ailing and overcrowded roadway system.

Griebel recommended what is essentially catch up maintenance on our bridges to avoid a repetition of the Mianus Bridge tragedy. She said that that expansion is not cost effective – the Q-Bridge modernization cost $2 billion, while the equivalent investment in our rail and bus systems provides more jobs and greater benefits.

She cited 360 State Street in New Haven as “one of the best examples of transit oriented development in the state.” Located across the street from a train station that is also a terminus for nine bus routes, it has 500 apartments atop street level retail, and parking for 200 bikes.

She mentioned the new Gault mixed use project near the Saugatuck railroad station as an example of transit-centered development.

Expanding public transportation includes adding bus routes and integrating them with railroad stations. It updates Metro-North, the country’s most used commuter rail line, improving service by replacing its 105 year old catenary lines and outdated bridges, and straightening track to accommodate the high speed Acela.

She talked about the value of building a rail link from New Haven to Springfield to save over 3.5 million gallons of gas annually and enhance this “critical connection” on the Boston to Washington corridor. And the Shore Line East railroad will be expanded to build up tourism.

She said the numbers make a strong case for public transportation. “At $4.00 per gallon of gas a car costs $10,000 per year” to own and operate; sitting in traffic in the highly congested Stamford-Bridgeport corridor “cost (motorists) an estimated $507 million in 2011,” and “asthma sufferers spent almost $50 million in hospitalization costs last year.”

The new transit network CTLCV’s Guide recommends will make more affordable transportation more available, reducing car trips for shopping, recreation and family visits by almost two-thirds while stimulating the economy and mitigating social isolation for seniors and other non-drivers.

She said expanded pedestrian and bicycle paths will be more heavily used – even noting that when bicycle pathways were built and maintained in Minneapolis young people used them to commute to work year round.

Griebel called for action – “you can make a difference” by checking out your community’s Plan of Conservation and Development and talking with local and state planning officials.

The Guide’s ten recommendations include investing in a “balanced, inter-modal and green transportation system;” “a fix-it-first” approach to road and bridge work; and assuring “funding stability.” These together will create jobs, strengthen our economy, and “make our communities better places to live without degrading the environment.”

But money to undertake these plans will be a problem as federal legislation currently under consideration would reduce contributions to such projects.

General Assembly member Gail Lavielle (R-143), a Sunrise Rotary member, added that we have “serious unfunded infrastructure needs.” But before she is comfortable seeking new money, Lavielle wants a “transportation lock box” that cannot be tapped to pay the state’s non-transportation expenses.

Photos by Hal Levy

Roy Fuchs