A group of Hartford residents told state Department of Transportation engineers Tuesday that they need to do better when it comes to offering up design concepts for the pedestrian bridge over Flower Street.
“I want you to believe in yourself more,” Chris Brown, director of Bike Walk Connecticut, told them.
The meeting Tuesday comes after a year-long battle between the state agency and the Asylum Hill and Frog Hollow neighborhood organizations.
The neighborhood groups fought for Flower Street, sandwiched between Farmington and Capitol Avenue, to remain open during construction of the New Britain-to-Hartford busway. They also wanted to ensure it remained open to foot and bike traffic after the busway is built, which is why they challenged the DOT at an administrative hearing that concluded in May.
Over the past year as construction progressed, business owners along Capitol Avenue complained about a drop in business after the street was closed to vehicular traffic. On Tuesday, some renewed their frustration with the project.
Transportation Commissioner James Redeker made it clear that no matter what happens “we’re not changing the busway.” He said they would do their best to build the $4 million pedestrian bridge up and over the busway, but they wouldn’t be changing the $567 million project.
Engineers told the group of about 60 neighbors that the right of way for Amtrak and the CTfastrak busway is too narrow for a traditional crossing at street level, so a pedestrian bridge would have to be built over both while avoiding the Interstate 84 overpasses, which are about 16 feet and 35 feet above Flower Street.
Last year, the DOT proposed closing the street to both vehicular and pedestrian traffic permanently, drawing loud complaints from the neighborhood and business owners. The group took their case to a DOT hearing officer, who decided in May that if the department is unwilling to change the configuration of CTfastrak to allow for an at-grade crossing, then it must provide a way for pedestrians and cyclists to traverse Flower Street.
“The Department of Transportation may not close the Flower Street at-grade rail crossing to pedestrian and bicycle traffic unless it constructs a grade separated pedestrian/bicycle bridge over the crossing,” Judith Almeida, a staff attorney in the DOT’s administrative law unit, concluded in May.
The decision also dictated that the City of Hartford not divert $4 million it planned to use to build the bridge on another project. It also instructed the DOT to work with the community in designing the pedestrian crossing.
But the neighbors didn’t like most of the pedestrian bridge designs the DOT presented Tuesday.
The switchbacks presented as one bridge option would extend up 280 feet with a length of about 700 feet from end-to-end, essentially extending the walk from Farmington Avenue to Capitol Avenue to just under a half-mile. But the neighborhood was not sold on the ramps.
“It looks terrible,” one male resident said. “I don’t see why you need any of it.”
Others described the designs for the pedestrian bridge as “ugly” and equated it to the pedestrian overpass right before I-91’s Jennings Road exit.
Doug Campbell, another resident, wondered if “everything presented is the best you guys can do?”
Tom Harley, chief engineer at the DOT, told him that the pedestrian bridge project is at “ground zero.” He said they called the meeting with residents Tuesday to get feedback early in the process.
But neighbors panned the handful of ideas presented, which included several different ways of getting pedestrians and cyclists over the busway using essentially the same path from the Aetna building to Capitol Avenue.
Campbell reminded Harley that he’s the engineer and it’s his job to make it work. He said neighborhood volunteers shouldn’t have to be bringing designs to the DOT.
Virginia Iacobucci, who owned La Paloma Sabanera on Capitol Avenue until she had to close it last month, wondered how many people are actually going to ride this bus and suggested it could stop at Sigourney Street.
“It’s just going to get torn down in a few years when they fix the viaduct,” Iacobucci said referring to the elevated portion of Interstate 84 near the Aetna building.
“The buses need to be there even if there’s only one rider on them,” Harley said.
Michael Sanders, transit administrator for the DOT, said most of the bus riders will be headed to Hartford’s Central Business District, which is why it wouldn’t be possible to stop the busway at Sigourney.
Asked if they would allow an at-grade crossing if the busway went down to one lane at Flower Street, Harley said “we are not prepared for that alternative.” He said the busway is two-way traffic and there are few locations along the 9.4 mile route that are one lane.
“What we are doing is trying to get pedestrians up and over,” Redeker said.
He said his job is to listen to their ideas and feedback so that they can build something the neighborhood wants.
The DOT said it is looking to finish the design of the walkway in the next three months. CTfastrak will be up and running by 2015.