New Haven aldermen pursue better street design

Author:  Philip Langdon

The Community Development Committee of the New Haven Board of Alderman has passed a resolution urging Mayor John DeStefano Jr.—who survived a strong electoral challenge—to change the design of the proposed replacement for the Rt. 34 expressway.

DeStefano won his tenth two-year term as mayor of the 125,000-population Connecticut city on Tuesday, but by a margin of only 55 to 45 percent—the narrowest victory since he was first elected in 1993. The resolution backed by many of the aldermen says this about the street design that the DeStefano administration has been pushing:

there is a growing concern among community members and supporters that it could fall well short of its potential to knit together key portions of the City and transportation hubs, and to cement the area’s transformation into an urban place and regional job center driven by retail and housing development and growth in education and health and human sciences. The plans presented to the public thus far show the existing highway replaced by a pair of four and at one intersection five-lane (including turning lanes) surface arterials….

It would be fiscally, socially, and environmentally irresponsible to execute this project using an “automobile-first” policy of roadway design….

Among the changes sought by the aldermen are:

• Equal planning priority for pedestrian, bicycle, mass transit, and automobile traffic in the design;

• A pair of two-lane streets instead of two planned four-lane roads to carry much of the traffic that now uses the expressway;

• A maximum of three lanes where necessary (including turn lanes);

• Travel lanes only 10 feet, along with relatively tight corners, to calm traffic and minimize crossing distances for pedestrians;

• Separated bicycle facilities (cycletracks) adjacent to the two principal streets;

• Road design standards based on a target speed of no more than 25 mph;

Advocates for pedestrians, cyclists, and a less automobile-oriented design have been frustrated by the lack of cooperation from the mayor. The New Haven Safe Streets Coalition, which mobilized city residents to ask their representatives for a more pedestrian-oriented design, sent out a mass e-mail accusing the City of “trying to divide the community by spreading inaccurate information.”

The Coalition said one letter from the City “claimed that widening highways like Route 34 can help reduce traffic within cities,” when in fact the reverse is true. Another statement from the city claimed that intersections in the redesigned streets will be very similar to most intersections currently found in downtown New Haven, but cites what the Coalition says are “places that we know have been the scene of multiple fatalities and injuries in recent years, and that are not pleasant for young persons or the elderly to cross each day.”

Part of the City’s reluctance to produce a more pedestrian-oriented design may stem from the more vehicle-oriented standards of the Connecticut Department of Transportation. DOT’s approval is needed for implementation of the project.

Part of the problem may be the attitude of the mayor. DeStefano has a reputation for heavy-handedness. (The New Haven Independent noted that he didn’t offer the customary congratulations to his opponent on election night.) Though he won the election, the Independent said “voters clearly exhibited some DeStefano fatigue” after 18 years with the same man at the city’s helm. Forty-five percent of those voting cast their ballots for an independent, Jeffrey Kerekes, who has never held elective office or managed a sizable enterprise. That was despite the fact, that, according to the Independent, “DeStefano outspent Kerekes about 20 to 1.”

The sizable vote against DeStefano seems to have been fomented more by dissatisfaction with other aspects of city life—notably a high homicide rate (27 killings so far this year), high property taxes, and a low school graduation rate (though DeStefano is hardly unconcerned with the schools—he has presided over an impressive $1.5 billion program that has renovated or replaced nearly every school in the city, often with excellent architectural results). But for some residents, the failure of the DeStefano administration to come up with an expressway replacement that augurs well for pedestrians was a factor in the election.

Whether, after his close call at the polls, the mayor will be more responsive to critics’ complaints now remains to be seen.

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Posted by Philip Langdon on 10 Nov 2011