Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, chairs the five-hour hearing. (Courtesy of CT-N)

A transportation bill jammed with proposals on pedestrian safety and traffic enforcement drew virtual testimony from around 70 people Wednesday afternoon in the first major test of technology during 2021’s largely digital legislative session. 

“This will be an interesting day for me,” Rep. Roland Lemar said before directing the five-hour hearing as co-chairman of the Transportation Committee. 

At the outset, Lemar described the new process: members of the public had been given a randomly assigned spot in line and a link to log into the hearing. At the appropriate time, the committee’s clerk pulled them into a Zoom conference, where they had a few minutes to address a window of lawmakers looking back at them through their devices. The committee made accommodations for late sign-ins and held time for dropped internet connections. 

Lemar reminded committee members that the digital hearing was still subject to state public disclosure laws and warned them against using the virtual platform’s chat function to engage in private conversation. 

“It is very hard for our clerk to transcribe emojis into a public record,” he said. 

Despite some brief technology hiccups and occasional reshuffling of the speaking order, the hearing moved along at an even pace and the digital setting did little to dull the emotional impact of some of the day’s testimony. 

Dr. Richard Belitsky logged into the virtual conference to speak in support of a provision to allow the use of automated traffic enforcement cameras. He recounted the 2008 death of Mila Rainof, a 27-year-old medical student who was struck by a car as she crossed a New Haven street. Rainoff could not see the vehicle because it was obscured by a nearby truck. The driver of the car was speeding up, trying to beat a changing traffic light, Belitsky said. 

“Mila was just steps from reaching the curb,” he said. “It was my job as deputy dean for education at the medical school to call her parents residing in California to inform them of what had happened to their daughter. It was the most difficult and heartbreaking call of my professional career. A feeling that has never left me.”

It was a painful story and it had a clear impact on Lemar, a Democrat from New Haven who said his community was “layered with these stories.” He brushed his eyes after he thanked Belitsky for highlighting the severity of the pedestrian safety issue in New Haven. He said it was “the reason, frankly, why I’m in the position I’m in.”

Lemar is a primary architect of the omnibus bill. Its 33-pages include the provisions on speed enforcement cameras around schools and work zones. It contains a policy change to allow municipalities more freedom to set their own speed limits. The bill would create a fine for “dooring,” or opening a vehicle door to impede cyclists or pedestrians. The legislation would also increase the penalties for distracted driving and other traffic violations. It would grant pedestrians the right-of-way in a crosswalk without forcing them to first step into the road. 

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

New Haven residents and elected officials turned out in force to support the bill. In addition to the 75 people who had signed up to log in to the Zoom conference, well over 100 people entered written testimony. Many of them were from New Haven. 

The city’s mayor, Justin Elicker, told the committee that 11 residents were killed by motorists in there last year while walking or riding bikes. 

“Passage of this bill will save lives and do so responsibly. The number of people from New Haven testifying today underscores the urgency,” Elicker said.

Although there was consensus that something needed to be done to prevent further pedestrian and cyclist deaths, some questioned whether the bill was taking the right steps. Jim Travers, Stamford’s bureau chief of transportation and traffic, worried that allowing towns and cities to set “arbitrary” speed limits failed to address the problem. Stamford had reduced pedestrian deaths to just one last year, in part by redesigning roads, he said. 

“We hear the request all the time. It is not a lowering of the speed limit that is going to fix this situation, it is about how we design our roads,” Travers said. 

Many others disagreed, saying motorists need to slow down if pedestrians and cyclists are to stand any chance on the roads. James Baraja, deputy chief of the Bridgeport Police Department, said there was a “huge difference” between an accident involving a vehicle moving 35 miles per hour as opposed to one moving 45 miles per hour. 

“Speed equals damage,” he said.

After a two-hour morning informational hearing and five hours of public testimony, the committee rolled slowly to a halt a little after 5 p.m. Lemar thanked the panel’s clerk for juggling technology for seven hours and declared the session’s first digital public hearing a relative success. 

“The Transportation Committee was the test case for the legislature and pulling a fully-activated public hearing on multiple bills and I think we exceeded the expectations,” he said. “I think we’re doing an okay job of meeting the needs of the technology we have to have in play during COVID.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Coverage of the 2020 Multimodal and Transit Summit, as well as a follow-up series on related transportation issues, is being partially underwritten by the Transport Hartford Academy at the Center for Latino Progress.

Underwriting is funding for journalism that will be reported and produced independently, without prior review by the funder before publication.