Concerned Hartford residents and Department of Transportation officials converged Tuesday on Flower Street to discuss the options and challenges of keeping the street open to vehicular and pedestrian traffic when the New Britain-Hartford busway rolls into town.
The street, which runs behind the Hartford Courant building and parallel to Broad Street, is slated for permanent closure as part of the construction and operation of the 9.4-mile rapid bus route.
Tuesday’s meeting came as a result of discussions between department officials and residents who do not want to see the street closed to traffic. At noon both parties met near the Amtrak rail line to which the bus route will someday be constructed.
Depending upon who you asked, keeping the street open is either vital to preserving the fabric of the neighborhood or a difficult and expensive engineering prospect.
Current department plans will see the street closed over logistical and safety concerns. Michael Sanders, transit administrator for the DOT, said keeping the street open to traffic would be an “extremely difficult” task.
Once the busway, known as CTFastrak, is operational, buses will be zipping through the railroad crossing at a rate of about 20 per hour in each direction at peak hours. That means the gates that currently block traffic when a train rolls through would be closing about 40 times an hour to let buses pass. That rate would increase when more cars are added to the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail service.
Sanders said the Federal Rail Administration is intent on closing whatever rail crossings it can over safety concerns regarding backed up traffic. Even if the street were to remain open to bicyclists and pedestrians, some alternate route would need to be constructed either over or under the busway.
Both options pose challenges, he said. A ramp or bridge would need to be tall enough to clear the busway but short enough to not conflict with the I-84 viaduct bridge which runs overhead. The bridge would also need to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which could necessitate an elevator, he said. Meanwhile, a route under the busway risks running into the underground Park River.
But residents say closing the street not only breaks up the city’s street grid but impedes pedestrian traffic to businesses on the other side of the crossing. Tony Cherolis of Bike Walk Connecticut said employees of big companies like The Hartford often use the street to get to businesses in the Frog Hollow neighborhood.
“It would sever a very important tie between some large employers and local businesses,” he said.
Cherolis, who lives on the South side of Hartford, said he often uses the street to ride his bicycle and get to businesses like the Red Rock Tavern on Capitol Avenue.
“I do use this street and I know a lot of folks who do. It’s a hidden gem for bicyclists because it’s not over-used by cars,” he said.
Jennifer Cassidy of the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association said that the city’s street grid should remain intact for both vehicles and pedestrians.
“The street grid is really important and the road connects two neighborhoods. You’re cutting away at some of the fabric of our community when you take a road,” she said.
Though they were pleased by Tuesday’s meeting, opponents of closing the road seemed frustrated with the Transportation Department, which many said hasn’t been responsive to their concerns.
“I think that’s where most people are disappointed — just the attitude,” Dave Mourad of Bike Walk Connecticut said. “It seems like there’s a workable solution here. If there weren’t we wouldn’t be here. We’re not whining just for the sake of it.”
Cassidy said if officials are concerned about bus traffic during peak operation hours, they should close the street during those hours but open it for the rest of the day.
Sanders said the department was looking for solutions to keep the street open while the busway was under construction. But he didn’t seem optimistic the road would remain open after the buses start running.
“Engineering-wise it would be really difficult and probably expensive to make any changes,” he said. “But we’re going to look at some pedestrian options.”
Cherolis said Tuesday’s meeting was a good step and acknowledged keeping the road open poses “real challenges.” For his part he said he was looking forward to the busway, which he called a “neat concept.”
“It seems like a great way to experiment with transit options between two major Connecticut cities without breaking the bank,” he said.
A hearing is set to discuss the Flower Street crossing on Thursday at the Transportation Department headquarters in Newington.