Fairfield forum: Cost, conservancy concerns pose hurdles to Merritt Parkway trail
Public reaction to a conceptual layout of the Fairfield section of a multi-use trail proposed along the Merritt Parkway was mixed at a state Department of Transportation meeting in Roger Ludlowe Middle School Tuesday night.
The asphalt trail, which would be 37.5 miles long in the Merritt Parkway's right-of-way from Greenwich through Stratford, had initially been estimated by DOT officials to cost from $200 million to $250 million. But they also estimate it wouldn't be built for 10 years -- because of environmental reviews that are needed, as well as potential legal challenges -- and that inflation would raise the cost to $280 million to $350 million.
"The funding source would have to be identified," said William W. Britnell, a DOT principal engineer. "This is a feasibility study. This is not a design ... This is not a proposal to actually build a trail."
Mike Calabrese, a DOT project manager, said the DOT is neutral on whether the trail should be built. He said the purpose of Tuesday night's meeting -- the first of eight scheduled in municipalities where the trail would be built -- was to determine if the trail was feasible.
Most of the roughly 50 people who attended the Ludlowe meeting asked questions. Several others said the trail would increase property values, quality of life and tourism, while three members of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy opposed the trail, mostly because of its aesthetics and would require tree removal.
"The right-of-way should not be looked upon as vacant land, ready to be developed," said Jill Smyth, executive director of the conservancy. She said the Merritt Parkway's wide right-of-way is a feature like its historic bridges and that the proposed trail would contradict the DOT's guidelines for the parkway.
Alloe Stokes, a member of the conservancy's board of directors, said the Merritt Parkway is "a very unique road and it really needs to be recognized as a national treasure."
"This is something that, once destroyed, can never be brought back," Stokes said.
Stokes disputed as "laughable" the DOT's estimate that it would take $50,000 a year to maintain the 37.5-mile trail. DOT officials said the $50,000 figure came from towns that have similar trails and that their maintenance cost per mile was multiplied for the 37.5-mile trail.
Britnell said the DOT does not have the manpower for daily maintenance on the trail, such as emptying garbage cans and removing tree branches, though he said the state agency would repave the trail as needed. He said elected officials in towns where the trail would be built "weren't jumping up and down to maintain this."
"Before we got to the point of building this or designing it, that would have to be addressed," Britnell said.
Benefits of the trail mentioned by Calabrese include as an alternative to motorized transportation, a different way to experience the Merritt Parkway, health, tourism, the ability to connect the trail to existing north-to-south trails, and providing a link to businesses, open spaces, parks, recreational facilities and schools.
Mike Cherpak, a DOT project engineer, said studies of existing trails show they caused no increase in crime, and that public support and use of the trails increased after they were built.
The trail in Fairfield would run along the parkway's southern right-of-way, which is about 150 feet wide, for about six miles. The trail would be 10 feet wide, not including a 2-foot-wide gravel shoulder on either side, and have fences on either side. About 78 percent of the trail through Fairfield would be "at grade," 16 percent would consist of bridges or boardwalks needed because of wetlands or dramatic changes in grade, and 5 percent would have benches. Two tunnels -- where the trail would cross under Burr Street and Merwin's Lane -- also are envisioned.
"Those are conceptual treatments," Cherpak said of the tunnels. "We felt those locations required use of a tunnel to cross because of existing topography." He said none of the bridges would be over local roads.
Cherpak said the DOT also envisioned "switchbacks" -- where the trail would meander instead of going in a straight line -- to have a flatter slope, citing sections by Redding Road and Park Avenue as examples. He said the DOT wants to keep the trail's slope at 5 percent with short segments at 8.3 percent. The section of the trail that would cross Park Avenue would be signalized, he added.
The longest section of "uninterrupted travel" of the trail through Fairfield would be a 1.65-mile stretch from Hillside Road to Black Rock Turnpike, Cherpak said.
The DOT has no plans to install overhead lights on the trail -- though lights in the two tunnels may be possible -- or to clear snow off it. Trees could be planted to shield the trail from nearby homeowners close to the parkway's right-of-way, Calabrese said.
About eight-tenths of a mile of the trail, between Black Rock Turnpike and Morehouse Road, wouldn't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Calabrese said. Britnell said the DOT would figure out a secondary route for that section.
The environmental review of the trail, which would be on state land, would be done by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and local conservation officials wouldn't have jurisdiction, Britnell said.
DOT officials, after holding informational meetings in the seven other communities where the trail would be built, plan to meet with the Greater Bridgeport Regional and South Western Regional plannig agencies. After those meetings, a document on the trail's impact on the environment would be prepared, Calabrese said.
The conceptual layout presented Tuesday night, which was funded by a $1.3 million grant from the National Scenic Byways Program, was based on workshops held in communities through which the trail would pass, guidelines for designing a trail, field walks and an inventory of cultural and natural landmarks, Calabrese said.
He said the two major concerns expressed at other workshops were safety, which he said mostly involve the points where the trail crosses roadways, and the design of the trail.