As published in the Record Journal, Monday June 11, 2012
By Laurie Rich Salerno
WALLINGFORD — On Tuesday night, town councilors are expected to vote on where Wallingford’s next train depot should go — a decision that could affect downtown traffic and development for decades of years to come.
There are two sites being suggested by the state Department of Transportation: one at the intersection of the railroad tracks and Ward Street, called Judd Square, or Plan 1; and another near the intersection of North Cherry and Parker streets, referred to as Parker/Cerrito, or Plan 2. Town staff are primarily backing the Parker Street site, citing safety issues due to traffic interruption and a parking garage at the Judd Square location.
“Of all the sites discussed … it’s the optimal one at this point,” Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said of the Parker Street site, citing the concerns of emergency personnel.
The council’s decision is not binding, but according to John Bernick, the rail project’s supervising engineer, it will be heavily considered when the DOT gives recommendations to the Federal Rail Administration, which is funding the project. The DOT is soliciting public comments until June 22 on its environmental impact survey, available on its website.
Town Engineer John Thompson sought to have the council vote Tuesday night so the town could have a voice on the location.
“We didn’t want somebody outside of Wallingford deciding where the station should be,” said Thompson, who has been working with both the DOT and the town on the project.
The new passenger platform would serve the state’s proposed New Haven-to-Springfield high-speed rail service, which officials say could eventually bring 25 round-trip commuter trains — 50 trips — through town each day. It is scheduled to be completed in 2016 and begin with about 17 round-trip trains a day.
Neither depot would include an actual train station; rather, they would consist of parking lots or parking structures, platforms on each side of the track and a vaulted pedestrian walkway to connect the two. Riders would buy tickets on the train, as do now, or use automated systems on the platforms, engineers say.
The historic train station at Hall, Quinnipiac and Center streets will remain, but not as a train station. It won’t be used for the high-speed rail, according to engineers, because trains stopping there cut off access to not only those streets, but can clog Route 5 and close nearby Ward and Parker streets.
“It would literally tie up downtown,” Thompson said.
The Judd Square site was proposed as an alternative to both an initial Parker Street plan and a separate plan that would have placed a station across the tracks from Holy Trinity Church.
The depot there would feature one 200-space parking garage on the north side of Ward Street and the west side of the railroad tracks, along with 500-foot platforms on each side of the tracks and 200-foot shelters directly across from one another and joined by a raised pedestrian overpass, according to DOT schematics. Entrances to the lots would be both on Ward and South Cherry streets, and the parking structure would abut a parking lot belonging to the Judd Square condominium complex.
Having a more-than-300unit condominium right next door seemed like it would be a natural feeder for the service, Thompson said.
“When the Judd Square site was floated — that jumped out as being an absolute home run in terms of ridership potential,” he said.
But a town working group formed to analyze the sites after a public hearing last August found the site to be less than ideal in terms of traffic and public safety, according to Thompson.
Ward Street is a busy artery for east-west traffic, extending from North Elm Street on the east and joining with Quinnipiac Street on the west side, which feeds into Route 15. Trains stopping at Judd Square 50 times a day would close Ward, Hall and Quinnipiac — which engineers say are the town’s busiest streets — all at once. Trains stopping at Judd Square would make Parker, a short street that runs between North Colony and Washington, the nearest open road downtown. And that, Thompson said, could hamper the ability of emergency vehicles to quickly get to different sides of town.
Thompson said that one Sunday he saw this in action while sitting in his car at a crossing behind an ambulance as a train went by. “I’m watching an emergency vehicle with its lights flashing,” he said. “We just can’t let this happen 50 times a day.”
The working group also opposed the construction of a parking garage, citing public safety and aesthetic concerns.
“Most people find them difficult to navigate when getting off the train. The darkness of those places and the manner in which they’re designed is usually pretty intimidating,” said Police Chief Douglas Dortenzio, who attended some of the working group meetings. The chief said he’s not a fan of high-rise parking garages from a public safety standpoint — particularly those that do not have attendants — but he said he thinks there are subtle advantages and disadvantages to each site, and he isn’t a strong believer in either one.
Republican Town Councilor Craig Fishbein said he is leaning toward the Parker Street site because of Judd Square’s proposed parking garage.
“I don’t want to see the Wallingford landscape include a multilevel parking lot. I think it would turn the town of Wallingford into the city of Wallingford,” Fishbein said, though he is opposed to the high-speed rail project on the whole.
For the site to work as it has been designed, the state would need to acquire the Knights of Columbus building, a vacant industrial site and a private home.
The Parker Street depot would be a split site with two parking lots, one on each side of the tracks, totaling 210 spaces. One of the lots would be at the intersection of Parker and North Cherry streets on the south side of Parker and the west side of the tracks,with entrances on North Cherry. The land that would become the North Cherry lot is owned by the state. The second lot would be placed on North Colony Street, at the site of Cerrito’s used car lot.
The state would have to acquire property from only one owner to complete the Parker Street site, and though Cerrito’s owners did not return calls Friday, DOT officials said the town had discussed the proposed plans with them. Bernick said the state would pay for the property and relocation costs. “It’s a pretty fair shake,” he said of the process.
The two 500-foot platforms and 200-foot shelters would not be directly across from each other, but the ends would overlap in the middle, where there would be an overhead pedestrian walkway.
The distance between platforms is one of the reasons Republican Town Councilor John LeTourneau is a proponent of the Judd Square location, saying it could be difficult for handicapped, aged and other travelers if they need to get from one parking lot to the other side of the tracks.
“Judd Square … I like because it can be a nice, neat, clean up-and-over to get from one platform to the other,” Le-Tourneau said. He said the public safety argument for Parker Street is thin — the increased frequency of trains could cause public safety issues no matter where the new station is. He believes auxiliary police and fire stations may eventually be necessary.
The town’s working group favors the Parker Street site, as there would be no parking garage and trains stopping there would close Parker, Hall and Quinnipiac, but leave the busier Ward Street open.
Having parking lots on both sides of the tracks would also minimize bottlenecks to one lot or side of the tracks, according to Thompson.
“It gives (riders) the ability to park on the side closer to them,” Thompson said, which “lessens traffic impact on the local roadway network.”
Democratic Town Councilor John Sullivan said he would wait until Tuesday’s meeting, which will include a presentation from town engineers, to decide which site to support.
There were few residents out near either location late Friday morning, but some weighed in on the possibility of having a train depot nearby. Leon Bernstein, who has lived in the Judd Square condominiums for about 15 years, said he did not want a train stop next door.
“I don’t really like the idea. I wish they would put it someplace else,” Bernstein said.
At the other location, residents of Parker Place condominiums, which would be directly across the street from one of the parking lots, were more enthusiastic about having a station so near.
“The convenience of having the station here — that would be great,” Carole Evon said. “I have a car, but I might use it.”
As for increased noise, Diann Burrill, who has lived in a unit facing the tracks for three years, said it likely wouldn’t make that much difference to her and her husband.
“We have gotten used to it,“ Burrill said of the train whistle and other noises. The location would be convenient for others in her building, she said, including her son, who lives in a separate apartment in the same complex.
“He and his girl might use it once in a while … go see the Red Sox and Yankees. I think people would use it,” Burrill said.
Above: A vacant parcel next at Parker and North Cherry streets is a proposed site for a new Wallingford train station.Below: A lot across the tracks behind Dairy Queen on Ward Street is a possible location for a parking structure to be part of a train station.
Photos by Christopher Zajac / Courtesy of the Record-Journal