STAMFORD – A $7 million study of a stretch of I-95 recently named the most congested in the country elicited public skepticism and tough questions from local residents about the state’s priorities for spending, highway widening, and further impacts to disadvantaged communities along the interstate highway.
In a series of public meetings about the ongoing Planning and Environment Linkages Study of I-95 between Exit 7 and Exit 9 and the nearby city roads, project staff told residents the study was launched in response to the I-95 bridge over Metro-North Railroad and Myrtle Avenue reaching “the end of its useful life,” and the heavy use of the Stamford corridor.
“It carries lots of traffic through the area. Some 200,000 vehicles make their way from and to I-95 through the ramps and carry through,” said John Eberle, the project manager with Stantec Consulting. “So that’s a lot of traffic.”
The study will examine alternative designs for the bridge replacement, for reducing congestion on the corridor and for improving travel time and safety on I-95 and for vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians on neighboring city streets.
According to the Department of Transportation, $7,110,000 has been set aside for the study – 90 percent from federal funds and 10 percent from the state – including a $1 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration.
Results of the study are expected by 2025.
But at a Feb. 28 meeting with project staff, some local residents questioned the need for yet another study of I-95.
“That seems like a complete waste of money to me,” said Zach Oberholtzer, a Stamford resident. “I don’t understand why we need a three-year survey to figure out what’s wrong with I-95.”
Oberholtzer said the project team had enough data, and that the problem with I-95 seemed to be a rail system that encouraged commuters instead to drive.
Studies dating back to 2002 and 2009 have called for the widening of Connecticut’s I-95 corridor. Additional studies from 2016 and 2018 called variously for tolls, extra northbound and southbound lanes between Bridgeport and Stamford, and adding one southbound lane from Exit 7 in Stamford to New York.
But Jonathan Dean, the project manager for the study, said that the department needed additional data to create traffic models and gain a “solid insight” into specific issues with the highway, ramps and traffic signals. But while department staff told residents that they had not yet decided on specific alternatives to study, one Stamford resident warned against widening the corridor and adding an additional lane to I-95 given traffic on nearby roads.
“The area already is an interstate highway bordered by North State Street, South State Street, the Urban Transitway, Route One,” said Stamford resident Angelo Bochanis. “There’s a lot of high-speed, high-capacity roads running parallel through the study area, and it seems that having all of these mini highways of sorts just running through the area hasn’t worked.”
Bochanis pointed to the experience of other cities, like Los Angeles and Houston, where expanded highways led to induced demand – and actually worsened traffic along the roads.
Dean said the project team would look at a variety of solutions.
“Not just widening, but things such as adding auxiliary lanes between exits, or trying to consolidate some of the number of ramps that we have,” Dean said.
According to project staff, who presented 2022 traffic data for intersections along the highway corridor, their work is also aimed at improving safety for pedestrians and cyclists and the operation of buses in Stamford.
Bochanis urged them to prioritize safety on state roads, especially given the recent deaths of two pedestrians in a December hit-and-run.
“It definitely grabbed a lot of people’s attention throughout the city,” he said. “I think we’re all horrified by the fact that someone was driving 90 miles an hour down one of these roads – a state-controlled road – and the city can’t do anything about it.”
In collecting traffic and crash data from 50 local intersections in Stamford, the project team said they found three intersections that experienced significant delays and greater demand on weekday mornings, including East Main Street at Glenbrook Road, Elm Street at Tresser Boulevard and North State Street at Washington Boulevard.
Mike Paiewonsky, an environmental planner with Stantec Consulting, said that while most Stamford roads within the study area had sidewalks, some were in poor condition. At many intersections, he said, sidewalks lacked access ramps and crosswalks.
He said that walking, biking, trains and buses would be key areas of interest for the study.
Paiewonsky also acknowledged the study area ran through “a number” of neighborhoods qualifying under federal rules for additional consideration as environmental justice communities. He said the city has a minority population of 36 percent, and that 53 percent of the study area has a greater minority population than the city average.
“Virtually the whole study area is in one of these neighborhoods,” said Paiewonsky.
At a March 1 presentation, Stamford resident Anthony Pramberger questioned whether the project team had gathered baseline health data, especially given possible impacts of increased noise and pollution on local residents.
Dean said given that the study was in its early stages, it did not yet include “real, in-depth analyses of health impacts.”
Environmental justice has been a point of emphasis for Gov. Ned Lamont and Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes.
“Our commitments to addressing clean transportation are motivated largely by equity and environmental justice, because the burdens of air pollution are disproportionately felt in our communities of color in our urban environments, who live close to those transportation corridors where they’re breathing more vehicle exhaust,” Dykes said at a Jan. 2022 League of Conservation Voters forum.
In a phone call with CT Examiner, Francis Pickering, executive director of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, said he was “very supportive” of the study given chronic congestion in Stamford.
“It’s great to be number one on many things, but being number one in congestion in the entire country is not an honor you want,” Pickering said.
Pickering said the Planning and Environmental Linkages process could help to advance the study through the National Environmental Policy Act review process – an environmental review for major federal actions – faster than previous studies.
“It’s to help advance the project into the environmental stages, so it doesn’t just end up languishing on a shelf somewhere,” Pickering said.
According to the Stamford study’s website, the PEL process reduces duplication of planning and engineering efforts, expediting project delivery.
In an email to CT Examiner, CTDOT Strategic Communications Manager Shannon King Burnham said the bridge over Myrtle Avenue and Metro-North was currently rated as “poor condition” and would be rehabilitated by spring 2023. She said the replacement of the bridge is expected in the next ten years.