Construction work on the Merritt Parkway — from before Exit 41 to beyond Exit 42 — has been going on, it seems since dinosaurs and Studebakers roamed the earth.
The $56 million project includes upgrades to pavement, guardrails and drainage, and restoration of “historic concrete.”
It’s bad enough for drivers (who must navigate frighteningly tight concrete barriers, including on- and off-ramps) and residents (who have endured noise, dust and the destruction of acres of woodlands).
Concrete barriers and no shoulders make driving on the Merritt Parkway a life-in-your-hands experience. (Photo/Bob Mitchell)
But right now, work seems stalled. What’s happening? When will it resume? And how long will it take?
I asked Jonathan Steinberg, Westport’s state representative. He sits on the Transportation Committee, and lives not far from the endless mess.
A Department of Transportation representative told him that right now, there’s a restriction: Work cannot proceed after 11 p.m.
Because of that, the contractor — Manafort Brothers — has stopped work altogether. They say that with just a 3 1/2-hour night window, the project is not feasible. (Work cannot begin until 7:30 p.m., after rush hour.)
“It’s a tough spot,” the DOT rep wrote to Steinberg. “Everybody bought houses there due to the woodland setting and close proximity to a major travel way. The Parkway is over 75 years old and a project of the magnitude may come only once every 30 years. It’s safer if we cut the rock back for all of the travelers.”
However, the DOT official continued, “I agree that the noise we are making now is probably the worst, and this is only Southbound there is another opposite in the Northbound shoulder.”
DOT is “looking at various options that include reducing the amount of rock removed and beefing up the guide rail. Compensating the Contractor for his lost production. Utilizing day time lane closures. Allowing full shift work but on limited nights.”
However, he concluded — ominously for all — “as of today we do not have a solution.”
Westport backed all 4 Democratic candidates in yesterday’s state Senate and House races. That helped deliver 2 of those districts to the Democratic Party.
In a race that drew statewide — even national — attention, 22-year-old Staples High School graduate Will Haskell thrashed longtime incumbent Toni Boucher, for the State Senate 26th district seat.
Haskell’s 64-36% winning margin — against a politician who was in office as long as he’d been alive — was helped by a strong base of active volunteers. The recent Georgetown University graduate galvanized many young voters, and women.
Staples grad Jonathan Steinberg returns to Hartford, representing House district 136. He beat back a challenge from Republican Greg Kraut, a newcomer to politics and a 2-year Westporter. The unofficial margin was 61-39%.
In races that involved small portions of Westport, Republican incumbents Tony Hwang (State Senate district 28) and Gail Lavielle (State House district 143) retained their seats. However, both lost Westport to their Democratic challengers, Michelle Lapine McCabe and Stephanie Thomas, respectively.
For years, the state Department of Transportation has pushed for a major renovation of the William Cribari (aka Bridge Street) Bridge.
For just as long, Westporters and town officials have pushed back. They fear that modernizing and widening the 2-lane span over the Saugatuck River would draw traffic — including 18-wheelers — off I-95, whenever there is an accident or delay on the nearby highway.
A solution appears to have been found.
And it’s a creative one.
The William Cribari (Bridge Street) Bridge. (Photo/Fred Cantor)
According to State Representative Jonathan Steinberg, the DOT is prepared to reroute Route 136. Right now, 136 includes North and South Compo Roads, and Bridge Street, through Saugatuck and on out to Saugatuck Avenue headed toward Norwalk.
Under the new plan, Route 136 would join the Post Road (also US1) at the North Compo intersection. It would head over the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge downtown, then go south on Riverside Avenue (also known as Route 33), and on toward Saugatuck Avenue.
Thus, the Cribari Bridge would no longer be a state road.
DOT has agreed to do repair work on the bridge — but not a major renovation.
When repairs are finished, DOT would hand the bridge over to the town. Westport would own it — and be responsible for ongoing and future maintenance.
The bridge and environs would no longer be Route 136.
The plan was described to a bipartisan group of state legislators from the area — Steinberg, State Senators Toni Boucher and Tony Hwang, and State Representative Gail Lavielle — by state DOT officials, including commissioner James Redeker. DOT wanted the legislators’ input, before presenting it to 1st selectman Jim Marpe.
[NOTE: An earlier version of this story described — based on a source — the meeting as a “negotiation.” It was an informational meeting only.]
“It’s not cost-free to the town,” Steinberg admits. “But once in a while we come up with creative solutions that work for everyone.”
He gives credit to the DOT. “If they weren’t on board, we’d still be battling this out,” Steinberg says.
Marpe notes, “The concept has just been presented to me. I’m working with my staff to understand the short-term and long-term implications — including finances and public safety — to the proposal. It’s certainly an alternative that needs to be seriously considered.”
Recently, the Connecticut General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to loosen the restrictions of 8-30g — the state’s affordable housing standards, which incentivize municipalities to make 10 percent of their housing stock be “affordable.”
(Westport has a long history with 8-30g. Some affordable housing units here were built before the 1990 date on which state standards are based. Developers have proposed large buildings on small lots, marking a few units as “affordable.” Some observers have called those proposals “blackmail.” Westport’s Planning & Zoning Commission has denied several such proposals already. They approved one, on Post Road East.)
A proposed 4-story rental property at 1177 Post Road East.
The vote — 30-6 in the Senate, 116-33 in the House — makes it easier for towns and cities to reach “moratoriums,” and in some cases increases those moratoriums beyond the previous 4 years. (For an in-depth analysis of the measure from CTMirror, via WestportNow, click here.)
Governor Dannel Malloy vetoed the bill. The Senate overrode the veto by the closest 2/3 margin possible — 24-12. The House overrode it 101-47.
Local reaction was swift.
Westport Representative Jonathan Steinberg said: “I’m going to tell people in my town, ‘Put up or shut up.’ Build the units. Get to the moratorium. Stay on that path.”
That infuriated P&Z member Chip Stephens.
He emailed an “open letter” to Steinberg:
We got your message.
How dare you grandstand and throw your fellow town officials and residents under the bus last night:
“Steinberg said he plans to take an unwavering message to his town’s leaders — act.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to tell people in my town, ‘Put up or shut up. Build the units. Get to the moratorium. Stay on that path,’” Steinberg said. Only after they have been given that chance, he said, can leaders “talk about whether or not 8-30g is working.””
I suggest you consider that your town officials have worked long and hard on affordable housing, both 8-30g qualifying, and more importantly quality affordable housing as Hales Court, Sasco Creek, Canal Park and other IHZ and multifamily components.
Canal Park offers affordable housing for seniors, near downtown. Because it was built before 1990, it does not count for points under 8-30g standards.
In passing the newest 8-30g complex on Post Road East we will have our first moratorium application ready as soon as the developer completes the project and gets his CO.
Next time you crawl up on that stump and blow hot air directed at your town, think hard before letting your common sense filter down hurling inflammatory and demeaning comments at Westport. We hear and we will remember.
Steinberg fired back:
I have fought for 7 years to amend 8-30g to make it easier for Westport to achieve a moratorium, while you have done very little.
How dare you lecture me on this statute when all I stated that it’s now on towns to take advantage of this new opportunity to get to a moratorium and avoid developer predation.
You have real gall calling me out, given your abject failure as a Commissioner representing Westport’s interests.
I’m responsible for giving you a tool to protect our town. Shut up and get it done.
Like the 8-30 g/affordable housing debate, this political dialogue will continue.
State Representative Jonathan Steinberg (left) and Westport Planning & Zoning commissioner Chip Stephens.
But Thursday’s “city hall” meeting with our state legislators at Town Hall drew about 30 Westporters.
Alert “06880” reader Gene Borio was there. And although the subject matter was dry — the budget, transportation, infrastructure — the 3 politicians were very impressive.
State senator Toni Boucher, and representatives Gail Lavielle and Jonathan Steinberg (Tony Hwang was working late in Hartford) addressed many tough issues with “equanimity, intelligence and perspicacity,” Gene says.
There was no rancor or petty sniping between the 2 Republicans and 1 Democrat.
The setting was utilitarian, as Gail Lavielle, Jonathan Steinberg and Toni Boucher addressed important local issues with honesty and intelligence. (Photo/Gene Borio)
As the legislature balances Connecticut’s deficit, current and future needs, and the necessity for new funding sources, the intelligent discussion covered topics like our tax burden, loss of jobs and residents, Metro-North, and possible tolls.
The panel strongly critiqued a proposed bill that would create an entity — the Connecticut Transit Corridor Development Authority — empowered to encourage business development within a 1/2-mile radius of rail or bus transit stations. Westport alert: It would have little local oversight — and even worse, would have the power of eminent domain.
On affordable housing, the representatives gave kudos to Westport for addressing the issue years ago.
The legislators emphasized their support for environmental groups, Sherwood Island and the Westport Library. They heard — and were moved by — heart-felt stories about what happens when people served by the Department of Developmental Services (and their caregivers) grow old.
Afterwards, there was a friendly meet-and-greet. Gene says that one rep noted how gratifying it is to come to Westport, with its intelligent, informed and engaged citizens.
Of course, Gene notes, “we elected them. We’re pretty fortune to have these no-nonsense politicians, who clearly and truly serve in a tough job.”
Tonight, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe released this statement regarding the Westport Transit District:
In response to the “06880” story regarding transit service for some of our after-school programs, I would like to provide additional information on this evolving situation and update Westporters as to what your elected representatives and transit directors have been doing to find both short and long term solutions to this unexpected event.
In early July the Federal Transit Administration notified the Norwalk Transit District of its determination that the after-school bus service that NTD operates on behalf of Westport is an unauthorized public transit service route. The stops and clientele primarily involve students and, as such, the service was deemed equivalent to a “school bus service” and thus was “non-compliant” with Federal transit regulations.
Without getting into a long explanation of those regulations, suffice it to say that NTD and the Westport Transit District were given only 30 days to present a plan to become compliant or lose Federal funding (approximately 65% of the total program cost) for these after-school routes and the use of the NTD buses.
The Norwalk Transit District operates Westport’s buses.
This program has successfully operated for over 30 years in Westport. The program had recently passed its triennial Federal review, so its sudden disqualification came as a surprise. Unfortunately, the short time frame given to address the problem does not give us time to develop a solution in a manner which would meet the new federal interpretation of the regulations. Ultimately this may not be possible at all.
As soon as we were alerted to the problem by the NTD, the Selectman’s Office, in conjunction with State Representative Jonathan Steinberg and the Westport Transit directors, began a multi-avenue effort to find solutions. With the new school year upon us, and with hundreds of students, their parents and the programs counting on this service, our first and primary initiative has been to obtain a stay of this ruling. We are seeking a 5-month extension of our funding and continued use of the buses until January 1, 2015 so that an alternative solution can be found.
Toward this end, we have formally applied for an extension to the appropriate FTA administrator as well as to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, which is supporting our appeal. We have also been working closely with our state and federal representatives. Senators Blumenthal and Murphy and Congressman Himes have all signed a joint letter to the FTA strongly supporting Westport’s request for an extension.
Today I received a phone call from the FTA administrator in response to our letters and phone calls. She informed me that relevant FTA officials will meet tomorrow (Tuesday) to review our request, and expect to give us a response no later than this Wednesday.
In the interim, we have been exhaustively examining all other options to provide alternate service through other bus service providers in the region. The unfortunate reality is that, at this late date, most bus service providers are fully utilized at the time of the day when we would need 3 more buses to provide the service. There is very little additional bus capacity in our area at this moment.
If our request for an extension is granted, our objective will be to find a way to restructure our current program so that it is considered “compliant” by the FTA. Alternatively, by working with programs and families, we can seek to find an alternative method of providing after-school transit services.
Hopefully on Wednesday we will have a positive response from the FTA so that we will not have to deal with the disruption and difficulty that the immediate cessation of this important service will cause. I will keep you informed.
As Westport’s Little League all-star team roars toward the World Series in Williamsport — they’re 2-0 in the New England regionals, the most recent win a perfect game yesterday over the Maine state champs — some adult fans are having a tougher time.
They want to honor Westport’s 1st-ever Connecticut championship with a highway sign.
So far, they’ve struck out.
On Sunday, July 28, Avi Kaner — whose son Jonathan is friends with several of the all-stars — emailed the 3 Westport selectmen and 4 state legislators from this area. He asked how a sign could be placed at I-95 Exit 17. “I have seen similar signs elsewhere,” he noted.
Eight days later, State Senator Toni Boucher responded. She relayed information from the state Department of Transportation’s Traffic Engineering Division. It said that the division
receives many requests for recognition signing and, as a result, has established a practice of limiting the conditions under which they will be installed. Generally, recognition signing is currently limited to college level athletic teams that win a national or conference tournament championship or win their conference. Little League level athletic accomplishments are not recognized on the State highway system by the Department.
The Department shares your enthusiasm for honoring the Westport Little League team. However, if all such recognition requests were accommodated, there would be so many signs that motorists would have difficulty responding to the various regulatory, warning and guide signing essential to the driving task.
In view of the above, the Department does not provide or allow Little League Championship signing in the State highway right-of-way.
Boucher hit “reply all,” and added her own thoughts:
It might be a good idea to put in a bill as a delegation to change this policy in the future. In the meantime, if anyone wants to try to contact the Governor’s office on this it may be worth it.
UConn got a huge sign on I-84, just for winning the women’s NCAA basketball title.
Kaner — the Republican candidate for 2nd selectman this fall — took less than 20 minutes to send his next email. He thanked Boucher for her suggestion of a bill, asked whether the legislature could “overturn this DOT decision on a one-off basis” — and added this personal plea to State Representative Jonathan Steinberg:
“As a leading Democrat, the Governor’s office will be most likely to listen to you. Can you please try?”
This is bipartisanship at its finest. Senators Reid and McConnell, Congressmen Boehner and Pelosi: take note.
Although, if I was a betting man, I’d lay odds that the Westport Little League all-stars’ season will end a lot more successfully than this bureaucratic mission.
In November, Westport voters will elect a new 1st selectman.
The Republicans have already chosen Jim Marpe. The Democrats meet tomorrow. The 3 names most frequently mentioned are Ken Wirfel, Jonathan Steinberg and Helen Garten.
To get a sense of who these would-be 1st selectman candidates are, I asked a few simple questions. Here are their responses. The Democratic candidates are listed in reverse alphabetical order because — well, I’m a Woog. The Republican candidate is listed last, because he is unopposed.
Ken Wirfel, former member, Board of Finance
Main reason I’m considering running: I’m passionate about Westport. Westport is just recovering from the fiscal crisis and needs someone who can secure its future. We need a first selectman who can share with us a vision how we can assure the continued excellence of our school, retain our talented workforce and allow our seniors to remain in place if they so choose.
Main reason I considered NOT running: I consider the other announced Democratic candidates my colleagues and friends. I want to run a campaign that is respectful of their abilities and desires to serve the town, while setting myself apart.
Major problems facing Westport: Labor contracts and union plans. Many will come up in the next 4 years. We’ve got to end most defined benefit plans and “bend the curve” on others by lengthening service years and extending retirement age before eligibility for benefits.
Biggest thing Westporters talk about that is NOT a problem: Deer population.
Ken Wirfel on the roof of Fenway Park, during a Yankees game.
First thing I’d do after being sworn in: Kiss my wife and children. Meet with all department heads and engage in a thorough review of goals and responsibilities. Meet with chairs of all RTM committees, town boards and commissions to assess whether they are receiving timely and adequate information from town departments.
5 Westporters I admire: Alan Nevas, retired federal judge; fount of common sense and decency. Michael Szeto, retired from IBM; currently teaching at MIT’s Sloan School; passionate about education and American competitiveness in the global economy. Michael Kassen, president of AIPAC; a tremendously decent, thoughtful, moderate guy playing a major role at a time of Middle East threats. Keith Stein, involved in numerous community activities; quiet, unassuming guy; great dad, son, husband, brother, athlete and cook. Barbara Butler, director of human services; if Westport’s government has a soul, it runs through her department; she constantly affirms my belief that government can be a force for good in our community.
My favorite places in Westport: My wife’s backyard garden, a beautiful respite from the rest of the world. Compo at dawn, for years part of my early morning bike route before a commute into New York.
My favorite places NOT in Westport: Nantucket; British Columbia; open water anywhere.
If I was not running for 1st selectman, I’d be…: Planning road trips to college hockey games in Boston next year.
If I was tweeting about Westport, I’d say…: A Life Well Lived. You Deserve Westport. @KenWirfel
Jonathan Steinberg, State Representative
Main reason I’m running: I love this town and I’m excited by the prospect of making it an even better place to live and work. I’ve worked hard on Westport’s behalf on the RTM and in the State Legislature, and I know I have the experience and perspective to be an effective leader.
Main reason I considered NOT running: Campaigns require an all-out commitment. My family has always been very supportive, but running for office takes a toll on family life. I strive to maintain a balance, because family matters so much to me.
Major problems facing Westport: The good news is we are not facing major problems. But we’ve all noticed a change in the tone of public dialogue lately. There’s a tendency to form factions and fight, rather than work together. There’s so much good about Westport, and so many good people who want to move the town forward, but there’s an increasing lack of civility and willingness to see the other side’s point of view.
Biggest thing Westporters talk about that is NOT a problem: There’s a big myth about fiscal problems in Westport. Westporters should not be misled: The town is in fine shape financially — better off than most municipalities, with a Triple-A bond rating. We simply need to plan well for future employee pension and healthcare obligations, and be resolute in contract negotiations.
First thing I’d do after being sworn in: Get around town as often as possible as part of a continual effort to engage Westporters on what’s on their minds. Perhaps I’ll start with a big “brown bag lunch.”
5 Westporters I admire: Barbara Butler: no one has done as much for Westporters in need, always with grace, compassion and good humor. Dick Harris, an environmental hero. Ann Sheffer, whose commitment to the arts has kept Westport in the forefront of cultural excellence. Allen Raymond, who has been in the middle of many of the biggest Westport moments, from the Longshore acquisition to the new library and Y. My parents: my father took great care of the health of generations of Westporters — and made house calls, while my mother’s “best books” lecture at the library is always SRO.
My favorite places in Westport: A serene spot in Salmon Park with a beautiful view of the Saugatuck. The library, hub of activity and information where there is always something stimulating happening. Any of the ball fields on a Saturday morning. And of course an intimate, state-of-the-art movie theater on Main Street (okay, it doesn’t exist — yet!)
My favorite places NOT in Westport: Madison Square Garden for a playoff game; Portofino, Italy on the quay at sunset; wherever my daughters are living at the time.
If I was not running for 1st selectman, I’d be…: doing my best for Westport as its state representative.
If I was tweeting about Westport, I’d say…: Westport is a great place: amazing amenities, a strong sense of community, a tradition of giving and helping. I’m proud to call it home.
Helen Garten, Board of Finance vice chair
Main reason I’m considering running: I love Westport, and I think I have the skills, experience and energy to make a difference.
Main reason I considered NOT running: I am not a politician!
Major problem facing Westport: As is true for many communities, the long-term cost of Westport’s employee retirement benefits — pension and retiree medical — could eventually crowd out other funding needs. The solution is to craft a sustainable benefits package that protects our taxpayers and treats our valued employees fairly. Westport is already ahead of many towns in pension reform, but we still have a long way to go. Getting there will require skill, creativity and consensus building.
Helen Garten, awarding medals at a Special Olympics event.
What’s not a problem: Westport has not been, and is not, in financial trouble. To the contrary, we came through the recession with services funded, taxes reasonable and reserves strong. That’s why we can plan for the future now.
First thing I’d do after being sworn in: Hold the first of the revived First Selectwoman’s Brown Bag lunches. There is no better way to share ideas and learn what Westporters are thinking.
5 Westporters I admire: Allen Raymond, who has done more for Westport than I can mention. Katy Goldschmidt, who inspired me to get into and stay in Westport politics. PTA parents, whose tireless efforts keep our schools great. My husband Michael, who has no idea what he’s in for if I do run for first selectman but will never complain. Dan Woog, who runs the most lively and interesting blog I know of. 🙂
Favorite places in Westport: Compo Beach, particularly in the off season. The Westport Public Library, our downtown anchor. The Saugatuck River behind my house, which is beautiful in every season.
Favorite places not in Westport: Fort Sewall in Marblehead, Massachusetts where I grew up; Cuttyhunk Island; the Princeton University campus.
If I was not running for first selectman, I’d be…: sailing to Bermuda (seriously!).
If I was tweeting about Westport, I’d say..: although we seem to disagree on almost every issue, we all care passionately about our community.
Jim Marpe, former chair, Board of Education
Main reason I’m running for 1st selectman: I love Westport. I’m excited at the prospect of using my unique background in both the private and public sectors to make our town even greater. I saw the impact I could make as a public servant on the Board of Education, keeping Westport schools world-class while improving efficiency in a non-partisan matter. My consensus-driven approach will help enhance our services, protect our “crown jewels” and make it easier for our seniors to stay in Westport.
Main reason I considered not running: The time I spend with my wife and daughter, and the time I dedicate to various community service activities, are very important to me. The 1st selectman’s job is more than full time, so I face giving up significant portions of family and community service. Fortunately, my family is excited about the positive differences they believe I can make.
Jim Marpe at the Rotary Club, of which he is a long-time member.
Major problems facing Westport: Westporters are concerned that many “crown jewel” services and amenities are showing wear and need attention. Seniors want to “age in place” but worry about property tax increases and housing options. Employee pension and benefit costs must be restructured to still make our community an attractive place to work, but at a cost taxpayers can afford. We must seek cost efficiencies through technology, restructuring operations and greater cooperation between the town and schools. We must revitalize our ability to attract and retain businesses that are appropriate to our town’s character.
Biggest thing Westporters talk about that is NOT a major problem: The amazing number of community service organizations and their dedicated, tireless and creative staff and volunteers who do an extraordinary job of filling the gaps that government cannot or should not fill. Westporters are an engaged, well-intentioned, civic-minded group who care about their neighbors and the direction of the town.
First thing I would do after being sworn in: Meet with every town department head to identify their key challenges and opportunities, and agree on the top objectives for the coming year and their impact on the budget process. This will lay the groundwork for quickly developing a 4-year strategic operating plan. Simultaneously we will aggressively develop strategies for upcoming labor and pension contract negotiations.
5 Westporters I admire and why: Allen Raymond, who has dedicated most of his 90 years to Westport through public office and leadership of many community organizations. Joanne Woodward, through whose leadership we still have our iconic Westport Country Playhouse housed in a modern yet familiar facility, with an expanded mission. Al DiGuido, whose Al’s Angels and its dozens of volunteers demonstrate the impact an individual can have on a community and the lives of children. Paul Green, who through his “Nevah Surrendah” organization and his commitment to exercise has educated and motivated Parkinson’s disease sufferers to fight back, and inspires us all. Mary Ellen Marpe, my wife, who besides putting up with my late evening meetings and erratic schedule has made her own impact on Westport through 11 years of operating the Academy of Dance, and now having a leadership role in ITNCastalCT.
My favorite places in Westport: Ned Dimes Marina at sunset on a summer evening. Getting a haircut at Compo Barber Shop. Any restaurant, diner, deli or bar that is locally owned (outdoor dining appreciated). Westport Country Playhouse; the “Staff Recommends” table at the library. Longshore golf course; coffee and conversation at Mitchells. Walking my dog in Winslow Park, at Compo and Burying HIll in winter. Shopping at the Farmers Market and Double L Farm Stand. Wakeman Town Farm.
My favorite places NOT in Westport: Anywhere with vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms; a sailboat or motorboat on Long Island Sound; Manhattan; Boston; Chicago; Tuscany.
If I was not running for 1st selectman, I’d be…: continuing to work with the Family Y, Rotary, Green’s Farms Church, Y’s Men, Stamford Symphony and the Riedel & Cody Foundation. I would spend more time with my wife and daughter, and walk my dog more often. I might even lower my golf handicap.
If I was tweeting about Westport, I’d say…: Love Westport. A creative, sophisticated, caring community in a unique setting; world-class schools; activities to match every interest.
Click here to help support “06880” via credit card or PayPal. Any amount is welcome — and appreciated! Reader contributions keep this blog going. (Alternate methods: Please send a check to: Dan Woog, 301 Post Road East, Westport, CT 06880. Or use Venmo: @DanWoog06880. Thanks!)