Senator Boucher & Area Elected Officials Set Record Straight On Route 7

October 6, 2009

State Senator Toni Boucher (R-26), along with First Selectmen Bill Brennan ( Wilton), Rudy Marconi (Ridgefield), Natalie Ketcham ( Redding), State Representatives John Hetherington (R-125) and Peggy Reeves (D-143), and HVCEO Executive Director Jon Chew, held a press conference at Wilton Town Hall today to discuss Route 7. Also, they were joined by Town Planner Bob Nerney, AICP, and Pat Sesto, Director of Environmental Affairs. Former State Senator Judith G. Freedman of the 26th District who, along with former State Representative Barbara Ireland of Ridgefield, opposed the Super 7 project beginning in the 1980s, stated that “it is time to move forward not backwards.” Please see highlights of remarks by other press conference participants at the end.

Senator Boucher made the following remarks at the press conference:

Thank you for joining us today to discuss a major issue for our communities and our region.

The Route 7 corridor is a vital transportation artery for western Connecticut. Because of its strategic importance for moving people and goods through a region that is a key economic engine for the state, the definitive plan for its development has left no stone unturned. It is founded on the careful consideration of numerous factors, including environmental conditions and regulations, funding requirements and availability, and the concerns of local residents. Significant investments have been made in implementing the plan, which includes upgrading the Danbury branch line and expansion of the existing Route 7 that is now well underway and close to completion.

The transportation plan for the Route 7 corridor is based on solid, quantifiable realities. Recent speculation about altering this plan to include construction of a super highway does not take those realities into account and therefore may be misleading to the public. We must set the record straight.

Transportation issues surrounding the Route 7 corridor have been hotly debated off and on for over five decades. The original solution to the growing traffic congestion in our region was to build a super “truck” highway similar to I-95 along Route 123 through the Town of New Canaan. This proposal was soundly defeated by the residents over 50 years ago. An alternative route was later proposed north of the City of Norwalk, through the middle of Wilton and in parts of Ridgefield, Redding, and Danbury. Over the decades, and through long and oftentimes bitter opposition from these communities, a super highway design was abandoned. The Housatonic Planning Agency (MPO for the Danbury region) removed this proposed highway from its long-term plans and replaced it with train, other transit options, and a widening project.

It was widely recognized that the costs of a new highway vastly outweighed the benefits. Over the last 50 years, new highway grading guidelines would have placed this proposed highway nearly 120 feet in the air. In addition, new environmental regulations would not allow the project to pass a required federal environmental impact study. Dozens of local, state and national environmental groups took official positions and testified against this proposal during the 1999 state Department of Transportation (DOT) official public hearings to expand it two miles north of the current terminus. There were anywhere from 500 to 600 local citizens at each meeting, speaking out ten-to-one against a highway. Democratic and Republican town committees, local planning and zoning and inland wetlands committees also spoke against the proposal. DOT and public officials received over 1,000 petitions, letters and e-mails from citizens who were strongly opposed to a Super 7 Highway. In 2007, the legislature’s Transposition Committee held a public hearing on a bill to resurrect this highway that was proposed by a Norwalk elected official. The bill was not even brought to vote due to the overwhelming testimony offered by residents, elected officials, scientists and environmentalists who opposed it.

The residents of our region had rejected plans for a Super highway for over five decades, most recently in 1999, 2007 and 2009, through great effort and countless public hearings. The difficult and dangerous topography of the area and new federal guidelines for highway grades have made any proposed superhighway in this location so costly as to render it untenable. As a result, a compromise agreement, to which I was a party, was reached to widen the existing Route 7 roadway in 1999. It was decided that a widening project would be the more cost effective, least environmentally damaging and most effective alternative.

Those who suggest that building a superhighway along the Route 7 corridor fail to see the negative impact such a project would have on the economies of these towns. One only needs to look at the freeways in Southern California to see that more roads do not equal an improved transportation system. Currently, Route 7 is being expanded from two lanes to four in many areas along the same Danbury-Norwalk corridor. This widening should be completed throughout the entire Route 7 corridor. Concurrently, we should be developing our train system along that same corridor to bring about the economic benefits of rapid transportation without the damage to the environment of our towns that highway construction brings.

In summary, the issue of a Super 7 Highway from Norwalk to the Danbury line is a 50 year old controversy that has been shelved by the state for the foreseeable future due to the following reasons.

Environmental & Health Issues:
• It is home to one of the largest wetlands in our state that cannot be mitigated.
• A positive federally mandated environment impact statement is required; it would never be granted.
• State environmental permits would not be granted due to new wetlands regulations.
• A National Park is now located along the originally proposed route.
• Wetlands along the route serve as habitats for rare species.
• Opposed by all environmental organizations in Connecticut.
• Contrary to smart-growth principles; Super 7 would move people further from work, create new traffic congestion and pollution. An additional 30 % increase in traffic onto to I-95 and Route 15
• Latest science regarding air and ground pollution show Super 7 would have harmful health effects.

Cost Issues:
• 40% of the land needed for building Super 7 is not currently owned by the state.
• New federal highway grading requirements and regulations would require it to be elevated in most places; cost of building a 20-mile, 100- foot-high fly over highway would be several billions of dollars, assuming necessary permits could ever be obtained.
• Municipal government leaders would fight Super 7 in court at great cost to the state.
• Towns have already invested in widening the existing Route 7.
• State government should continue to focus scarce resources on feasible projects that have support, such as further widening, rails and trails.

Multiple Town Opposition:

• Previous efforts to build Super 7 were killed when local citizens took their opposition to court; today, environment groups and local governments, including Ridgefield, Redding, Wilton, and parts of many surrounding towns, would keep future proposals to build Super 7 in the courts for decades.
• The Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials (HVCEO) has taken Super 7 out its plans and are concentrating their efforts on rails and other improvements.
• Governor Rell, affected municipalities, DOT and DEP oppose a Super 7 Highway.
• Local opposition stronger than ever after 50 years; Republican and Democrats in the towns affected oppose Super 7.
• The Legislator who is lobbying for this does not represent the towns affected by his proposal; it would be like us proposing to shut down exit 14 in Norwalk or widening I -95 or Route 15 in Greenwich or Darien without the approval of the citizens and elected officials who would be affected.

To get anything done, you have to make a plan and stick to it. The chief elected officials have done just that. They have worked hard for years to get DOT to improve this major transportation corridor. After a decades-long court case that stopped any further talk of a Super 7 dead in it tracks and countless public hearings that I personally attended, a compromise plan was adopted. It took 10 years to get the compromise plan to widen the road and fix the trains off the ground. It was not until the arrival of Governor M. Jodi Rell and our new DOT Commissioner Joseph Marie, who heard our persistent requests for action, that both projects finally started to move forward. The widening through Wilton is now nearly complete. The resolution to this 50 year old controversy- widening that road, and fixing our trains- was founded on a grasp of reality. And that’s exactly what we’re doing. Widening the road and planning for future widening in a cost effective, environmentally sensitive manner to connect Norwalk to Danbury. And, the federal government is spending $30 million to improve our rail line.

As I just stated, other plans and regulations have made a Super 7 impossible to build in this location – and people, real people, don’t want it. We believe that a recently conducted survey is an attempt to create a false impression and is misleading. But today we are here for a reality check- and to set the record straight.

In Conclusion:

Look to the future. Everyone’s goal here is to get cars off the roads, not to get more roads for the cars, and Super 7 flies in the face of that goal.

Keep Fairfield County moving. We have invested a great deal in widening the current road way. We will need to continue to widen all of existing Route 7 through Wilton Ridgefield, Danbury and parts north of 84. We need to concentrate on fixing I-95.

Mass transit is the future. Money is needed for rail stations, maintenance facility and light rail in Stamford, along with parking and station improvements. After a decades-long lobbying effort, we are finally making headway with a $30-million investment in the Norwalk to Danbury Branch Line by the federal government. And, we have created a working group to consider a bike and pedestrian greenway.

Preserving the character of our area is more than a matter of simple aesthetics. Many people have moved to Fairfield County in recent years because we can offer the community of small towns with the accessibility of larger cities. When residents and businesses oppose the building of Super 7, they wish to preserve that character and keep the economic revitalization of the region from falling apart. Our greatest asset in this state is the education and entrepreneurial spirit of our residents. Improving economic conditions statewide starts with putting the focus on how we live and work each day.

So what can be done? In addition to the compromise agreement between the DOT and our region to expand the current roadway from a two-lane to a four-lane road, we have a tremendous untapped underutilized resource right under our very nose: the Norwalk to Danbury train line.

The economic boon to the region that this rail line could provide is clear. In recent years, there has been a rapid growth in business offices and residential complexes along this line. The key to this growth is accessibility. As residents of the area are able to move between work and home with greater ease, it encourages a highly skilled workforce to remain in Connecticut. This growth is not just limited to our cities. The Town of Redding is hoping that a new town center can be created along this line, with the hope of adding a new train stop. Commercial interests will expand along with the population. This section of rail traffic is among the busiest in the Tri-State area. Governor Rell and the state of Connecticut recognize this, having already approved a $1.3 billion program to upgrade and expand service on the main line and a $30 million federal grant for CTC. Improving the transportation system in Connecticut gives our state the edge that makes our communities so attractive – more passenger cars making more stops at more locations is a major factor to fueling the economic growth of Fairfield County. Above all, the infrastructure of the region must serve our greatest asset: the people who live here.

Those of us here today find it is very disappointing that some continually try to resurrect the long dead issue of a Super 7 highway. Some even think that this unrealistic and outlandish notion is humorous. But, there is little to laugh about, and there is little that can be accomplished by this futile exercise other than to disrupt families, children and seniors who are trying to live in peace. Instead, they are worried, frightened – even terrified – every six months by the insensitive, irresponsible actions of some. To those that persist in threatening the stability of our neighbors and neighborhoods, we say leave these good families and taxpayers alone. Let them live in the peace they have earned after 50 years of threats of upheaval. They have enough to worry about in these trying and taxing times.

There are many here today, with decades-long experience and involvement with this issue. They have worked extremely hard on this issue, they have put in countless hours attending public hearings and testifying on behalf of the towns and residents affected by it, and have worked closely with the DOT in completing the plans put in place as a result of those hearings to move this roadway forward. You will hear from representatives, officials and experts who will elaborate further.

Highlights Of Remarks Made By Press Conference Participants

HVCEO Executive Director Jonathan Chew stated at the press conference that his organization does not support the building of a Super 7 Highway. Members are focusing their attention and resources on improvements to I-84, train system, mass transit and smart growth initiatives. He also stated that their reports show that if the highway were built, it would dump 30% more traffic on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway, which could not be absorbed. In addition, the current widening of Route 7 between Danbury and Ridgefield would preclude using that land for any other roadway. HVCEO represents two-thirds of the affected area.

Gail Lavielle, Commissioner, Connecticut Public Transportation Commissioner:
“There is always room in public debate for opposing viewpoints, supported by facts and logic. There is, however, never a place for groundless assertions, or for claims based on studies that were not designed to support them. But in politically charged and sensitive environments, event eh vaguest and least substantiated of messages can raise doubts among us about the most well established and widely accepted of situations. I am afraid this is what happened last month when Senator Bob Duff released the results of his survey on public opinion about building a Super 7 expressway. That the survey was inadequate to its purpose was one thing. But, far more disturbing is the fact that it has misled the public and worried and frightened many people who had been reassured that the threat of having their lives disrupted by an expressway had disappeared.

Wilton First Selectman William Brennan:

“With all due respect, why are we wasting our time on this extremely costly and unaffordable proposal? Let’s be realistic. The federal government is trillions of dollars in debt and it is unrealistic to believe there are available funds for this very expensive and environmentally damaging highway . . . Once again, I suggest we listen to the people. For almost 40 years, this road has been discussed, but never constructed. Why? The people most impacted have strongly opposed it. They do not want it and efforts to resuscitate interest have been repeatedly defeated. On several occasions, Senator Duff has taken this 1960s road concept to the state Transportation Committee and each time it failed, the last time in 2007 when the committee did not even vote on the proposal.”

Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi:
“This area has been working to upgrade its trains for decades. We cannot allow this long defeated and outmoded proposal to take our valuable time and resources away from our stated purpose. There is no support for it in my area and it is now time to move on to better solutions to our transportation infrastructure needs.”

Redding First Selectman Natalie Ketcham:

“For the past thirty years, the Town of Redding has expressed grave concern over the ramifications of the construction of a Super 7 highway through the towns of Wilton, Redding, Ridgefield and Danbury. The purpose of my presence here today is to confirm, for the record, that our position remains unchanged: we are adamantly opposed to its construction. Our Town Plan of Conservation and Development in 1998 specifically called for the town to “continue to support local efforts to abandon plans for Super 7”. We did, and we thought those plans had, very rightly, been abandoned . . . In addition, the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials Regional Transportation Plan opposes Super 7 and supports the widening of the existing highway. There is not the political will in our ten town regional planning agency to alter that position.”

Paul Najarian, Wilton:
“I am writing again to express our complete opposition to the proposed Super 7. I am outraged that we continue to waste valuable time and money on this terrible idea. The matter has been settled and our elected officials and community at large need to move on and spend time and money more constructively.