“The department of transportation can’t take care of sidewalks along with everything else we have to do,” explained Kevin Nursick, spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT). “It is the norm for towns to put sidewalks in themselves.”
But for years the Town of Stonington has been hoping for different result at least for the section of Route 1 running through Pawcatuck.
“We have been requesting funds from the Connecticut DOT for a decade, we’ve been applying for grants, we have been up and down this roller coaster for ten years,” said Rob Simmons the first selectman of Stonington. “The reason we feel the state owes us some accommodation is because they never completed the widening and improvements on this section of the road as they did for two-thirds of the route in our town. They never did the final portion because of I-95.”
It’s a complaint with roots back into history, when after the Second World War, state and federal government began a program to straighten and widen the old Boston Post Road built before the American Revolution.
The very last section in the state was never completed, and I-95 supplanted Route 1 as the primary shoreline route across the state . And that last section of Route 1 in Connecticut runs through downtown Pawcatuck village in Stonington.
Today that stretch of busy road includes a high school, a senior living facility, the police department, an affordable housing development and the post office — all places that could benefit from pedestrian access, but unfortunately the road is narrow, curved and without sidewalks.
“The road has virtually no sidewalks except those that have been built when there is a new development. It looks like shark teeth with lots of gaps,” Simmons said. “And yet, we see electric wheelchairs, bikes, kids walking along the side of the road that is little more than a foot wide.”
In 2016 it appeared that Stonington would receive its funding, when the town received $500,00 toward the project from the State Department of Housing through a Main Street Investment Fund grant. But that funding was later lost when the Connecticut General Assembly reduced bonding for the Main Street Investment Fund from $8 million to $2 million, forcing several approved projects including Stonington’s to be cut.
That decision came just a few months after Raymond Lanphere, a 77-year-old resident, was struck and killed while traveling in a motorized wheelchair along the very same stretch of road slated to receive sidewalks.
“It was a tragic accident. We are frustrated because our children and some of our citizens are still at potential risk,” Simmons said. “We hope the drivers aren’t going too fast, on cellphones and that truck drivers haven’t been up for 48 hours.”
A missed Community Connectivity Grant
In 2017, CTDOT solicited applications from every municipality under the Community Connectivity Grant Program. Forty applications were approved in a first round of funding in fiscal year 2018. And additional 40 remaining applications were funded by the State Bond Commission on December 11, 2018.
“The grant program went live in the Spring of 2017. Eighty towns applied, 80 were accepted and funded with $25.8 million,” Nursick said. “Stonington was not one of those towns.”
This spring, Stonington applied again for state funding through a program administered by the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Government (SCCOG).
“In early Spring the COG solicited project applications from our towns for anything to improve pedestrian and bicycle movement. We received five projects,” said Jim Butler, the executive director of SCCOG, adding that “DOT encourages us to only submit one project because of the state capacity for funding.”
Stonington, Norwich, New London, Bozrah and Groton submitted applications.
“Our committee reviewed the applications and toured all the sites individually. The COG agreed that Norwich’s project on New London Turnpike of a complete street improvement was our top priority,” Butler said. “All of the projects had safety related benefits and they were all deemed important, but it’s only 2019 and this money is not going to be available until 2021, if at all.”
$1.185 million is currently expected to be allocated to whichever of these projects are selected between 2021 and 2025, Butler said.
Stonington’s project was added as a fourth in line for the funding after pressure from the town.
Stonington goes it alone
“We have given up on the state,” Simmons said. “The state is broke and has routinely turned down our request for assistance. It is cutting back in every category.”
At the most recent Stonington Board of Finance meeting, an alternative strategy for the town to complete the project themselves was discussed.
“We will do the engineering work to determine the priority areas and come forward to the Board of Finance and request bonded money or money from surplus to in-fill the sections of roads that do not have sidewalks,” Simmons said. “It will cost a couple million dollars to complete, but we hope it will begin in the next year.”
If the engineering study and plan is completed this year, Simmons expects the sidewalks to be completed in five years.
“We are crossing our fingers that no one else gets killed before then,” Simmons said.