Regional group votes to remove funding
Updated 2:41 pm, Friday, August 18, 2017
WESTPORT — Over $40 million in state and federal funding to repair or replace a Westport bridge was removed from a list of regional infrastructure projects Thursday.
The South Western Region Metropolitan Planning Organization unanimously agreed after First Selectman Jim Marpe requested $42,050,000 intended to design and rebuild Saugatuck’s William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge be removed from the State Transportation Improvement Plan list at their Aug. 17 meeting. The STIP lists all highway and public transit projects for the next four years that will get funding from the Federal Highway and Federal Transit Administration.
Marpe, who had committed to rejecting the funding in mid-July, formally asked the $42 million be removed until the Connecticut Department of Transportation finished its environmental assessment and the town had more clarity on the state’s intended design.
He said Westport looked not to stop the process but to simply remove the funding after residents expressed worry over the state’s plans for the bridge, including the potential for additional traffic if it were widened and heightened, and concern for the historic character of the bridge, built in 1884.
The SWRMPO received over 300 emails from residents asking the funding be removed, according to Marpe. But at Thursday’s meeting, Westporters turned out equally to ask the funding stay and go.
Morley Boyd and John Suggs, of the Westport Preservation Alliance, asked the funding be taken off the list.
Removing the funding “will allow Westport to be able to sit down as an equal with the DOT next year,” when the environmental assessment is expected to be completed, said Suggs, a Representative Town Meeting member and independent candidate for first selectman.
After the meeting, Suggs said he thanked Marpe for his “no” vote and “willingness to listen to his constituents.”
Other residents called removing the funding “premature” and asked the SWRMPO keep it on the list, explaining it could be removed later and expressing concern it was sending the opposite signal — that Westport did not want to work with the state DOT on the project.
In his description of the STIP at the meeting, Western Connecticut Council of Governments Principal Planner Robert Sachnin called it a “living document” that is subject to constant change.
RTM member Jennifer Johnson, who formerly sat on the SWRMPO when she worked as a transportation director, called the STIP a “wish list,” but an important one that reflects hard work and important projects.
“Nobody wants more trucks, but we do need to find a solution for that bridge,” she said. Johnson added the funding could be removed later, but cautioned its removal this week as a “very careless mistake for our community.”
After the vote, she further expressed her dismay with Marpe’s choice.
“As a result of Jim Marpe’s short-sighted vote, Westport no longer qualifies for over $42 million in federal funds that could have been used to explore and implement alternatives for alleviating the crippling traffic on Greens Farms Road and the Post Road,” Johnson said. “Now we are likely to be stuck with those problems for years to come. So it’s a sad day for Westport.”
One possible solution for the bridge is for the state to carry out repairs based on the town’s desires and then transfer ownership to Westport, an idea proposed state DOT Commissioner James Redeker two day’s before the SWRMPO meeting.
During Thursday’s meeting when he requested the funding be removed, Marpe cited the state transportation department’s offer to to rehabilitate the bridge and then transfer ownership to the town, shifting state routes — something the first selectman said added additional complexity to the problem.
“It’s certainly an alternative to preserving the bridge,” Marpe said in an interview. “It offers an interesting alternative, but at the same time there are a number of ramifications associated with it that need to be fully evaluated.”
In order to make the Cribari town property, Bridge Street, as well as Compo Road South from its intersection with Post Road to Bridge Street, would be re-designated as town roads. Currently, they are part of Connecticut Route 136, making them state roads. Route 136 would be redirected along Post Road and Riverside Avenue.
“My position is ‘no thanks,’” Suggs said. “This is not something that the town of Wesptort would benefit by, and we want the DOT to do its job to maintain the bridge, do the minor repairs and to leave our bridge the way it is.”
He said the decision should be made as a town and include an evaluation of potential impacts — such as the financial responsibility of snow plowing and maintenance that would come with bridge ownership — and believes the proposal should go before the Representative Town Meeting.