Woog's World: State poised to re-imagine an 'optimized' Westport

It hasn’t gotten much publicity. But Gov. Dannel Malloy’s new Agency For Organizationally Optimized Land could reshape Westport in ways that would make this town unrecognizable. Forever.

The clumsily named committee — which has just begun meeting in Hartford, and will not hold public hearings until later this year — is charged with finding ways to use improvements to Connecticut’s road, rail and waterway systems to anticipate (and, hopefully, get ahead of) changes, rather than reacting to them. “We need to use 21st century skills and technology, not the 19th Century methods we’ve grown comfortable with,” the governor said.

Committee members have not spoken publicly about their work. But a Fairfield County appointee — who asked that his name not be used — talked privately with me last week. He is concerned that Westporters do not yet realize the potential impact of the group.

For example, the agency has had informal discussions about reviving an idea that was discussed — and abandoned — in the 1950s: double-decking Route 1.

That was actually one concept considered in the planning stages for the Connecticut Turnpike (now called Interstate 95). The highway would have run directly over the Post Road, from Greenwich to the Rhode Island border. The plan was eventually scrapped as impractical, as well as aesthetically disastrous. (Schematic drawings are still available at the Westport Library — check them out!)

Now, it seems, members of the governor’s commission may reconsider the idea. Double-decking would take place in “the most congested” areas. Under the guidelines, all of Westport would qualify.

“There are plenty of issues that would have to be ironed out,” the Fairfield County member noted. “Some land might have to be taken by eminent domain, and of course the construction process could be a nightmare. There are issues of access to the second deck. And we would of course have to work hard to make it look as unobtrusive as possible. We want something handsome, or at least not too stark. I don’t think we’d do this if it looked like the elevated subways in New York City.”

The member said the idea has backing from (of course) agency members who do not live in the area. It is a long way from happening — but it’s an idea Westporters must be wary of.

Another proposal would add lanes to both the Merritt Parkway and the rail lines.

“These are two separate issues,” said the Fairfield County committee member. “But again, the feeling is that our transportation networks are running beyond full capacity. The only way to ease congestion is to build more.”

The new Merritt lanes may be easier than the railways. Already, the state Department of Transportation has removed thousands of trees from highway shoulders. Construction of new roadways would simply piggy-back on work already done. Executive action signed by former governor John Rowland greatly speeds up the process — and eliminates many of the environmental and other legal barriers to such a move.

Rail line expansion — though more difficult — is also under consideration. Though this would have to be coordinated with other Northeast states (and involves federal agencies, Metro-North, Amtrak and many other bodies), agency members are excited at the possibility of finally bringing bullet train service to Connecticut.

The agency’s mandate extends to the state’s coastline. Under the 1796 Ferry Maintenance Act, local towns’ control of their own waterways may be usurped if there is a “demonstrated, dire and substantial” need for ferry service. Although the impetus of the act was the need for ferries between towns on opposite river banks, courts have ruled that the legislation also covers coastal towns.

The Fairfield County member on Malloy’s Agency for Organizationally Optimized Land believes there may a push for new ferries operating from, and between, Long Island Sound beaches. The idea is business-driven: People commuting by ferry would relieve pressure on our very congested roads and rails.

Though it’s not certain, the 1796 Ferry Maintenance Act could permit construction of a ferry dock anywhere on Westport’s shoreline. I asked the committee member what that would mean, exactly.

“I’m not sure,” he admitted. “But it could — and I stress ‘could’ — mean something right on Compo Beach, or Longshore. It’s not happening immediately, or even soon. But nothing is off the table with these guys.”

These are pretty radical ideas. Like the double-decking of the Post Road in the 1950s, many — if not most — will probably not happen. The obstacles are great. And long before the ’50s, Westporters have a history of making their voices heard.

But the Agency For Organizationally Optimized Land (AFOOL) is already at work. And their deadline is exactly one year from today: April 1, 2017.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog’s World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.com.