Traffic, business are hot topics at Westport first selectman debate

Photo of Amanda Cuda

WESTPORT — Traffic, dispersing federal funding and economic development were some of the hot topics discussed Tuesday during a debate between the three candidates vying to to be the town’s next first selectman.

The debate, sponsored by the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, took place at the Westport Library and featured Republican first selectman candidate, and current second selectwoman, Jen Tooker, and her running mate Andrea Moore; the Democratic candidate, state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg and his running mate Candice Savin; and third-party candidate TJ Elgin and his running mate Louis D’Onofrio.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director and President Matthew Mandell moderated the debate.

“This is a debate not between people who don’t have a similar goal,” he said. “Everybody here has the same goal — to make Westport better.”

Whoever is elected on Nov. 2 will succeed current First Selectman Jim Marpe, who announced he isn’t running for a third term. The debate lasted nearly two hours and addressed multiple key issues in Westport.

Mandell’s first question dealt with traffic problems in Westport. He said that, in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Westport’s roads were virtually bare. But now that things eased “there seems to be traffic all over.”

All candidates offered their ideas, starting with Elgin, who suggested posting signs from one end of town to another telling motorist how many minutes they could expect to be delayed. The idea would be to persuade motorists to wait out any delays by spending time in a local business. He also said he would cut back on big development projects that can lead to increased volume on the town’s roadways.

Steinberg said, if elected, he would take direct action to address traffic problems, and mentioned such possibilities as using smart technology to change the flow of traffic in certain areas.

“This is not a matter of legislators just writing letters to the (Department of Transportation),” he said. “It must start with the first selectman.”

Tooker said many of the roads causing the biggest traffic headaches are state roads and that “our ability to get things done (regarding those roads) is immediately hindered by the DOT and legislature.”

Instead, she said, if elected, she would focus on town roads, and take such measures as creating a traffic advisory and neighborhood safety committee.

Steinberg later took issue with the suggestion that improving traffic on state roads can only be done at the state level. He said the first selectman’s office definitely has a say in the matter and that “the current administration has been weak and tepid in their response to this issue.”

Other issues discussed included the $8.4 million in federal money Westport has coming its way from the American Recovery Plan Act, and addressing some of the areas in town that flood easily.

“Every time I bring up the subject I learn about new parts of town that have problems with flooding,” Steinberg said.

Tooker mentioned the three public meetings the town has hosted have yielded many ideas, including putting some funds toward improving bus shelters in town.

Savin, who is chair of the Board of Education, later said she was disappointed by one area that seemed completely overlooked in the ideas currently on the table: “There’s nothing in the proposals (that would) benefit the school community or our students,” she said.

Elgin said he didn’t think any of the federal money should be allocated until after the election. He said he took issue with some of the suggestions, including putting some of the money toward the Westport Weston Health District. His running mate, D’Onofrio, later echoed those thoughts and suggested putting at least some of the money toward environmental measures, such as “solar panels on all government buildings, including the schools.”

Another hot topic has been improving economic development and bringing new businesses to town. Mandell asked the candidates first about their ideas on the matter.

Savin agreed that the topic needs attention. “We need to have a laser focus on bringing in and supporting businesses,” she said.

Tooker’s running mate, Moore, mentioned actions that have already been taken to improve economic development in town, including the launch of the Choose Westport we site, a public partnership between commercial developers, real estate agents and the town that describes the benefits of opening and operating a business in Westport.

Elgin again suggested posting signs about predicted road traffic delays as one way to increase patronage of local businesses.

“It drives traffic in different ways it can also drive business,” he said.