The city of Hartford and CTfastrak designers appear to be digging in for a long and adversarial hearing about what to do with the proposed busway crossing at Flower Street.
A one-day hearing scheduled for Thursday was postponed until three days in May to allow more time so both sides can introduce expert witnesses and other testimony.
The city says it will bring in lawyers, public safety officials, public works supervisors and economic development leaders to argue against the state plan to accommodate the busway by detouring pedestrians off of Flower Street, which is already closed to vehicle traffic.
The state Department of Transportation is promising to counter any points those witnesses raise, and will continue emphasizing its contention that shutting down Flower Street to pedestrians is vital to protecting public safety. Many people now use Flower Street to walk between Farmington Avenue and Capitol Avenue, and merchants have argued that they would lose business if the street is closed.
The city wants CTfastrak, which is developing the New Britain-to-Hartford busway, to come up with a better alternative than detouring Flower Street pedestrian traffic along a winding footpath to the much busier Broad Street a block to the east.
Some Hartford neighborhood organizations have even suggested that if the busway can't be built without causing that detour, the whole project should be halted a few blocks to the west, rather than continue to the downtown area.
The DOT's construction unit is applying for permission to close the Flower Street sidewalk to through pedestrian traffic, and the DOT's administrative law unit will decide whether to allow that. DOT Hearing Officer Judith Almeida initially planned to hold the hearing Thursday, but postponed it at the request of both sides.
The new schedule allows three days of testimony: May 7 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., May 8 from 6 to 9 p.m., and May 9 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. All sessions will be held at the DOT's headquarters in Newington.
At issue is a single Flower Street sidewalk that connects Farmington and Capitol avenues — as well as the city's Frog Hollow and Asylum Hill sections. The DOT already has shut down the sidewalk on the other side of the road, as well as the two-lane road itself. Almeida previously ruled that pedestrian access must be maintained unless the DOT can prove that providing a safe passage across the Flower Street busway crossing is not feasible.
That is exactly what DOT is arguing — that it is not feasible. Walkers, bicycle riders and wheelchair users are accustomed to crossing the single set of Amtrak tracks, with warning gates, where fewer than 15 trains a day pass through. But the DOT argues that the crossing will become much wider, busier and more dangerous once the busway is built alongside those tracks — and when a second set of rails is added, eventually, for a New Haven-to-Springfield commuter rail project.
CTfastrak planners want to block pedestrian access starting in late June to allow heavy construction to get underway.
Neighborhood groups and the city argue that diverting pedestrians and bicyclists onto busy Broad Street will create a new set of hazards. They also dislike the DOT's offer to build a $4 million set of switchback ramps above Flower Street in the next three years — if regulators approve. The DOT has said other ways of getting pedestrian traffic through the crossing aren't feasible.
Asylum Hill and Frog Hollow businesses argue that the Flower Street crossing, which is adjacent to The Courant's building, is safe now, and will become dangerous only because of CTfastrak. For that reason, they say, the DOT must do a better job of offering alternatives.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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