Hearing Officer Rejects DOT Plan To Close Flower Street Crossing To Pedestrians
By DON STACOM
May 21, 2013
A state Department of Transportation hearing officer on Monday dealt a startling setback to the politically powerful CTfastrak project, ruling that busway engineers cannot simply close off part of Hartford's Flower Street to pedestrian traffic.
The state transportation department must either leave Flower open or build a $4 million set of switchback ramps to carry pedestrians and bicyclists over the busway.
Neighborhood activists and merchants praised the decision, saying that a Flower Street shutdown would have damaged nearby small businesses and split the city's Frog Hollow and Asylum Hill sections.
"Hopefully, now we can all get down to business," said Virginia Iacobucci, owner of the La Paloma Sabanera Coffee House on nearby Capitol Avenue. "I support the busway. I want it to work. But ... it helps nobody to have one community closed off from another."
The ruling came from Judith Almeida, an attorney in the transportation department's administrative law unit. She was in the awkward position of deciding a case filed by another unit within her own agency. In a nine-page ruling issued Monday afternoon, she acknowledged that the outcome wouldn't be popular.
"There will be many who will be disappointed," she wrote. "Doing what is right is not always easy but it is necessary. Closing this crossing without providing another similarly located access is not in anyone's best interest."
In a prepared statement, the DOT late Monday said it was "pleased with a decision that places safety at this rail crossing first. We will continue to work with the residents, neighborhoods, businesses and the city of Hartford through the design and implementation of this project."
The DOT argued at a hearing earlier this month that it can't provide safe access along Flower Street after the busway is built alongside the Amtrak line there. The crossing will be so wide and heavily used that pedestrians and cyclists could get caught between safety gates as buses and trains barrel through, it said.
The city objected at first but abruptly dropped out of the case following negotiations between Mayor Pedro Segarra's staff and aides to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who is heavily committed to building the $567 million bus rapid transit system.
The DOT had previously offered to build the "up and over" rampway, but Segarra concluded Hartford would be better off using that money elsewhere. He endorsed the DOT proposal to detour walkers and cyclists to Broad Street using a pathway beneath the I-84 viaduct. That infuriated neighbors who argued the detour would be unsafe, unpopular and inconvenient.
Christopher Brown, vice president of the Bike Walk Connecticut advocacy group, had warned at the hearing that the DOT plan would almost guarantee injuries to cyclists and pedestrians. On Monday, he suggested the DOT should redesign the busway to one lane at Flower so it can keep access open and skip building the ramp system.
"A lot of effort [by DOT] went into arguing rather than getting creative with real-life solutions," Brown said. "I'm very happy about this decision. I give a lot of credit to the hearing officer, who was very fair."
The DOT's statement emphasized that Almeida now has given permission to close street access across the busway route; in the first ruling in October, she had allowed shutdown of car and truck traffic but specified that pedestrian access be kept open.
State Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol, a long-time skeptic about the busway, said Almeida made the right call.
"It's refreshing to see small businesses for once were actually able to be heard and represented," Betts said.
Staff writer Vanessa de la Torre contributed to this report.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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