As published in the Record Journal Sunday June 2, 2013
By Andrew Ragali
WALLINGFORD - The youths of the country believe in having everything at their fingertips, said John Bernick, who is managing the state Department of Transportation’s $650 million New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail project.
“The generation coming in now doesn’t necessarily want to be tied to a car,” said Bernick, a Wallingford resident. “They want to come out from their front door and have everything at their fingertips.”
That’s the point of the commuter rail project, and the reason why a new railroad station is being built in Wallingford, he said. “That’s transit oriented development.”
With the construction of a new station and the addition of a commuter rail line, there is potential for development and growth in the lower portion of downtown Wallingford, Bernick said.
“Depending on what the usage is with the rail, anything’s possible,” Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said of the development potential around the new station, to be located at the intersection of North Cherry and Parker streets. “This is what has created a lot of the discussion and planning concerning incentive housing zone.”
The proposed housing zone will create favorable zoning regulations for developers in the downtown area, including along portions of North Colony and North Cherry streets. It has yet to be adopted by the town.
“We probably wouldn’t be having those discussions regarding the housing zone except for the rail potential,” Dickinson said.
Construction of the new station will begin at this time next year, Bernick said. The station will be the equivalent of three stories tall with 500-foot platforms on each side of the double tracks, he said. The main station will be located along North Cherry Street, and a smaller kiosk-like enclosure will be located on the opposite platform, according to designs. A glass-paned pedestrian bridge will span the tracks, connecting the platforms.
Bernick said two parking lots will provide about 220 spaces. Parking will be plentiful for the 17 round trips planned when the station is finished in 2016, Bernick said, because the lots were designed to handle the eventuality of 25 round trips when the rail is complete years later. The smaller of the two parking lots will be at the corner of North Cherry and Parker streets, while the larger parking lot will be built at what is now Cerrito’s Auto Sales, at 180 N. Colony St.
Bernick said last week that the location of Wallingford’s new station is “set in stone.”
That the station site is “set in stone” didn’t stop its neighbors and town councilors from voicing their displeasure about its location and design plans during a public input session last Tuesday.
About 10 state DOT employees, including Bernick, attended the session and presented updated design plans. Most of the outcry came from residents of North Cherry Street. Concerns were mostly about traffic and security, though complaints about lighting and the type of shrubbery that will be used as a natural fence were also voiced.
“It’s just the nature,” Bernick said of residential complaints. “It’s important we understand clearly what their concerns and priorities are.”
On Tuesday, Bernick told concerned residents that he was open to personal meetings on site so that he could better explain designs. “I’m sensitive that this thing is landing in their front yard,” he said.
Town Councilor Jason Zandri said Friday that he’s worried about the new station being located in a residential area.
“I think they’ve underestimated the amount of road space they need,” he said, referring to traffic issues brought up during the Tuesday meeting.
The state DOT will look to acquire land to create easements and potentially widen roads, Bernick said. The only property that will be purchased as a whole is Cerrito’s Auto Sales. If those with property necessary to the project aren’t willing sellers, residents were notified Tuesday that eminent domain will be used. Bernick said the owner of Cerrito’s Auto Sales “isn’t a willing seller.”
The crux of traffic concerns came in regard to a commuter bus. According to current designs, a commuter bus will run down North Cherry Street and into the parking lot next to the station. Town Engineer John Thompson said North Cherry Street is narrow, and heading north, there is a bad sight line when turning left on Parker Street. A house on the corner blocks the sight line, Thompson said.
“It’s a tight intersection from a geometric standpoint,” Thompson said. “I’ve been very sensitive to these things.”
A traffic study performed by the state will help address some of these issues, Thompson said. He said he speaks regularly with Police Chief Douglas Dortenzio about traffic issues to make sure “what is proposed meets with our needs.”
Thompson also said that it’s not certain a bus will travel down North Cherry Street. The bus, he said, is a part of the design he supports to create a transportation hub.
Bernick said the original plan was for a bus pull-up on Old Colony Street to loop in and out of the station, but he was then asked by the town to add the stop on North Cherry Street.
“We can just do away with that,” Bernick said.
Town Councilor John Sullivan said “the first concerns I have are towards the residents in the area. The second concern is certainly safety. It seems to me they’re not committed to having someone on patrol down there. They’re going to use cameras rather than a person.”
Town Councilor Craig Fishbein said that the project’s design to dim lights at night and provide shrubbery to block the view into parking lots creates “a darkened roadway that is just calling for crime.”
Bernick said only the town of Westport has any form of security provided by the state or Amtrak, patrolling day and night. “Anywhere else, there’s no cop,” he said.
The station is designed for routine patrol, so police cruisers can easily drive through and see if the station is safe, Bernick said. That’s why, he said, the station is designed with plenty of glass paneling.
“You want to be able to see what you’re walking into before you get into it,” he said.
Cameras will be installed to watch for trouble, such as vandalism. Bernick said video will help give police a chance to catch perpetrators. Town councilors Tuesday night complained that they do not want to have to rely on the already short-staffed Wallingford Police Department to provide constant security in the area. Bernick said that in Meriden and Waterbury, police cruisers will be equipped with video feeds from cameras in their train stations. Bernick said emergency phones will be installed in the parking lots and station in Wallingford.
“There’s so much that I disagree with this,” Town Councilor John LeTourneau said of the new station. “This is going to be an absolute nightmare. Anyone who lives in that area will tell you, they’re so off-base on this, it’s really unbelievable.”
“The location is not the end of the world,” Town Councilor Tom Laffin said Friday. “The way they’re doing it is wrong.”
Fishbein said that he’s been against the rail project from its very beginning. Bernick told Fishbein Tuesday that between 250 and 300 people will board the train from Wallingford per day. With 17 round trips, Fishbein said that’s only about 10 people from Wallingford on every train.
“I see it to be an ultimate waste of our tax dollars,” Fishbein said.
While a majority of town councilors voiced their concern over the location of the new station Tuesday night, on June 12, 2012, the same council voted 5-2 to approve the location.
Zandri and Town Councilor Rosemary Rascati were absent from the meeting. LeTourneau and Sullivan cast the dissenting votes.
Several councilors were upset Tuesday night when Bernick said that it was the Town Council’s choice to build the station where it’s currently slated. “For them to say they really didn’t vote on this, I was troubled by that,” Thompson said of the council. That night in June, Thompson said, he made a three-hour presentation on two options: either the North Cherry Street location, or an alternate originally proposed by LeTourneau at Judd Square.
Thompson said he went through the issues for both locations. A working group formed by the mayor — including the fire and police chiefs and employees from the planning and zoning and engineering departments — felt that the Judd Square location presented safety issues, Thompson said. The main issue, he said, was that because the location was in an area of congestion, there could be problems with emergency vehicles. Due to design standards, gates at crossings would remain lowered for a longer period of time if the train station were built at Judd Square. This brought about concerns for fire and police personnel trying to respond to emergencies, Thompson said. Also, the Cerrito’s site offers more parking, so a parking garage isn’t required, and half the land to be developed for the station on North Cherry Street is already owned by Amtrak.
“We did present both options,” Bernick said.
Thompson said that if Judd Square were the council’s preference, the state DOT “would have gone with that.”
“No, I don’t believe that,” Zandri said. Sullivan also didn’t agree; nor did Fishbein, Le-Tourneau and Laffin.
Laffin said that all seven councilors attending last June’s meeting have the same memory of what happened: that no matter the vote, it was only a suggestion the state DOT would take into consideration.
“No matter what we voted, it wouldn’t have made that much of a difference,” LeTourneau said. “At the end, they would have gotten what they wanted.”
“The state asked for our suggestion,” Dickinson said. “Technically, the town did suggest the site. Ultimately, the state had to decide where it has to go.
“I suppose the council could have gone another direction ... I understand there’s desires for different locations for different reasons,” he said.
While Thompson said no location is perfect, the properties around the new station will eventually be some of the most valuable in Wallingford.
Bernick said last week that he could envision street-front properties being built near the station on Old Colony Street, possibly creating “another Main Street.”
“It’s a monster,” Bernick said of the project. “It’s going to feel good when it goes into service.”
Courtesy of Connecticut Department of Transportation
Site plan shows new railroad station, parking lots, and existing structures in Wallingford.
Courtesy of Connecticut Department of Transportation
Artist’s rendering shows the North Cherry Street side of the proposed railroad station in Wallingford.
Photos by Christopher Zajac courtesy of the Record-Journal