Train station update

News articles report on the third train station project and our administration's efforts to spearhead revitalization of this dilapidated foundry site. Most Fairfielders understand these goals and I appreciate the frequent positive comments citizens offer. Proactive steps are finally ensuring this long-sought vital train station gets completed soon. Recently I obtained $2.2 million in new federal funds to complete area traffic safety improvements without town cost, including safer improved exit 24 rotary approaches, intersections and street repaving. This important work will begin by spring.

In 2003 when Fairfield boards overwhelmingly approved the revised train project, the state and private landowner signed an agreement to spearhead public site work at the project. The state's crucial work creating the actual train station is evident driving along the railroad by Kings Highway East, as new platforms and an overpass onto the old Bullard site begins to render the old brownfield viable again. Town's commitment of up to $6 million bonding, to complete a 1,500-space parking lot, includes the written proviso I negotiated guaranteeing all $6 million is reimbursed to town from state parking revenues. The private plan by BlackRock Realty, owner of 27 acres, envisioned four office buildings, a hotel, ancillary small stores and a park adjacent to the station. This private development is economically stalled, but analysts believe smart growth is destined to thrive alongside mass transit.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT), the landowner BlackRock Realty and bankers have been meeting directly to resolve remaining issues. They have ultimate rights to determine who is assigned to perform remaining work because they are funding the roadwork, drainage, utilities, site grading and environmental controls to better protect Ash Creek. Some of this public project site work was supposed to be performed by the owner who, ready with funding, wanted desperately to complete this work the past three years. But they were stymied through untenable permitting delays. When they got final go-ahead in mid-2008, the credit crisis hit and private financing disappeared.

Half this intended work was never required on the developer's dime. For example, the developer was only building the roadway with state grant loans never received. The site re-grading for bridge overpass and parking area base was not a "contract" requirement, but a choice the developer offered to avoid excavating off site at much higher cost. Everyone knows state government normally gives private companies incentives and infrastructure help, but here it was the reverse until the bad economy hit. As these final sticky wickets get resolved, the state's work is proceeding with plans to do what has to be done. The governor, Fairfield's legislators, the attorney general and town boards are fully behind the ConnDOT's efforts to complete the public project.

This vitally needed Metro-North train facility, the first in decades to open, will tremendously benefit the public and Fairfield. Other elected town officials and I have been meeting with the state to push toward this finish line expected in a year. When I initiated this revitalization and environmentally friendly mass transit plan in 1998, it took a year for the state and region to agree in going forward. In 2001 after my first tenure, a different interim first selectman and his town attorney negotiated a poor agreement with a new property owner, BlackRock Realty. Their first agreement never got approved at board meetings because they asked town's taxpayers to spend more than $20 million without reimbursement and proposed too much development.

Upon returning in 2002 as first selectman, I re-negotiated and reduced town's financial exposure to near zero and convinced BlackRock Realty and the state to bear lead responsibility and to drop the size of buildings by 30 percent. The revised final agreement was approved by seven town bodies in 2003. The private landowner spent $15 million since implementing the first phase, including Bullard's factory removal, permit approvals, 100 percent design work, and $800,000 set aside in our town bank account for the future park conservation area I championed. While the credit crunch caused BlackRock Realty to lose loans and suspend work, they are still site owner and whatever further assets hopefully come soon from their discussions with the state, either way, the state has committed to completing all essential public work.

Our visionary revitalization for this landlocked industrial wasteland that used to employ thousands of workers until the 1970s is inevitable. Few cared about this long blighted site through prior decades. It is a privilege to help lead this historic opportunity forward which has already created momentous renewal of town's easterly business corridor. Dozens of businesses and restaurants have opened since 2002 and quality of life is replacing former decay along Commerce Drive and Kings Highway East. Fairfield needed our effort to renew a vibrant business district, just as we nourish Fairfield Center with streetscape and cultural amenities and support central Blackrock Turnpike. The boards and commissions who help implement these achievements deserve thanks.

I hope this narrative helps bring understanding and answers erroneous partisan letters. I am heartened the process of completing the third train station project is moving ahead with broad support overcoming obstacles. It may be the tortoise winning the race, but this work alongside our environmental, open space, and clean energy successes are making a huge difference. Smart growth brown field revitalization for commuters, neighbors, taxpayers and the entire community is well worth the effort and will become a keystone to the future well being of our special community.

Kenneth Flatto is first selectman for the town of Fairfield.