January 17, 05

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New twist to road, rail debate

There's a new buzz word for fixing Fairfield County's failing transportation system that has reignited a debate over whether rail or road improvements should take precedence.

It's called an operational improvement lane. The plan, floated by the state Department of Transportation, will reconfigure several exit and entrance ramps on Interstate 95 from the New York State line to Bridgeport, adding extra space and improving traffic flow.

Joe McGee, vice president of public policy for SACIA, said the project may potentially cut commuting time for drivers. To buttress his contention, he pointed out commuters did save time when one such lane was installed several years ago near the southbound approach to downtown Stamford between exits 10 and 8.

A coalition of the Greenwich, Norwalk and Stamford chambers of commerce has repeatedly called upon the state to develop a plan to add capacity to I-95. The group says the road is 150 percent above its original capacity and that traffic conditions are threatening the area's ability to retain large employers.

"You're never going to be able to widen I-95. It's a pipe dream. What we can do is increase the highway's ability to function, to improve traffic flow and make it safer by extending exit and entrance lanes," said McGee.

The department is studying the operational improvement to determine the most effective exits to improve, gage costs and potential results.

Unofficial cost estimate is in the $100 million range. State transportation officials have said the money to take on this project is not currently in the department's budget.

How to pay the way

The true fight over transportation will occur in the legislature this year as advocates push the lawmakers to find a funding source to pay for implementing the recommendations of the state's Transportation Strategy Board.

With the state facing a budget deficit, conservatively estimated at $600 million, the legislature is likely to allocate money to meet the most pressing needs.

Many in the state argue that the critical need is to replace 30-year old rail cars on the New Haven line that have been breaking down in cold weather.

Last month, the Transportation Strategy Board held its first meeting in Stamford, the epicenter of the state's transportation headache.

Gordon Ennis, chairman of the Greenwich Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee, told the board the state should put its money where the people are, "and it's not the rails."

Information from the U.S. Census Supplementary Surveys for 2001 and 2003 seems to support Ennis' claim.

Fairfield County's labor force grew by 2.1 percent to 463,876 over the two years. In that time, 15,324 more commuters choose to drive alone, up 5 percent. Carpooling, public transit, walking and working at home lost a combined 18,609 people, down 16.5 percent in the two years.

Another 2,325 people reported traveling to work by some other means, more than double the figure from the 2001 survey.

But some critics voiced displeasure with the operational improvement plan at the board meeting, saying it's road widening in disguise.

"I fear that people are coming late to the game are going to try to change the direction of this board and the legislature which created it," said state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford.

He and state Sen. William Nickerson, R-Greenwich, questioned whether the operation plan was a backdoor to a widening project.

The Transportation Department plan does not call for a continuous lane; it would only lengthen certain exit and entrance ramps somewhere between 1,200 and 1,800 feet.

"You can't talk about a fourth lane, because as soon as you do it triggers an environmental impact statement. That means a 20-year fight with the EPA over air quality. It's not going to happen," said McGee.

EPA is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Clock's ticking

SACIA supports the idea of operational improvement, but says the funding priority should be toward maintaining the area's rail connection to New York City.

"Over the years, we haven't invested in the system, and we've made rail service less desirable. But by improving service, improving parking, increasing the number of rail cars and improving shuttle service people will take the train. If we could reduce the number of trips on I-95 by 5 percent it would have a measurable impact on congestion," said McGee.

Whatever the fix, the state needs to move toward the action phase of its plan because the economic impact of snarled roads is already being felt.

A recent real estate report by Moody's Investor Service rates Fairfield County as the worst commercial market in the country.

"I attribute part of this to problem to the transportation system," said John Sheehan, principal of Delmhorst & Sheehan Inc., real estate advisory firm, which has offices in Stamford and New York City.

He said office properties in White Plains, N.Y., have performed significantly better than those in Fairfield County, partly because Westchester County has three rail lines, five parkways and three interstates.

"I-95 is choked off to the point where a 20-minute commute takes an hour and a half. Soon it will become a question of retaining companies," said Sheehan.