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Friday, April 26, 2013

Wallingford’s plan for a senior center walking trail still in budget

As published in the Record Journal on Friday April 26, 2013

By Andrew Ragali
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2224

WALLINGFORD — Town officials are questioning why $1 million was set aside in Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr.’s budget to construct a walking trail connecting the senior center to the Quinnipiac River Linear Trail by Community Lake Park.

The proposed capital project has drawn the ire of some who say the walking trail is a“questionable amenity” for residents during tough economic times. Town Engineer John Thompson said the project will beautify Hall Avenue in a manner similar to work done 12 years ago on Quinnipiac Street. Plantings and period lighting will be added. Directly connected to the streetscape project is a 2,400-foot walking trail from the senior center to the parking lot at Community Lake. Thompson said the project will cost the town just over $2 million. About $1 million has already been raised through previous budget appropriations, with the final million coming from a reimbursement grant recently awarded by the state.

“I didn’t talk to all the seniors, but I can tell you the response made to me by Executive Director Bill Viola is ‘We would like the opportunity to get from the senior center to the Linear Trail,’ ” Thompson said.

Town Councilor John Le-Tourneau, a Republican, said he is “adamantly against” the project. While LeTourneau said the walkway is a “good project for good times,” he doesn’t believe stable economic times have arrived. He’d rather see the money used for streetscape improvements on Quinnipiac Street.

“This is such an unworkable trail behind the senior center, it defies words,” LeTourneau said.

“Coercive terms”

LeTourneau has sided with School Roof Building Committee Chairman and former Town Councilor Mike Brodinsky, who wrote an op-ed piece in the April 21 edition of the Record-Journal criticizing the project.

“This trail is a strange priority,” Brodinsky wrote. “The mayor has elected to pass on additional infrastructure improvements in favor of a new, niche amenity few will use.”

Brodinsky said in his piece that Dickinson merged the Hall Avenue streetscape project with the construction of the trail purposely, forcing the Town Council to fund the trail if they wanted Hall Avenue beautified.

Dickinson “has warned that if the council had any interest in upgrading Hall, it would have to accept the construction of the new trail, because ... well, because he says so,” Brodinsky said.

In late 2011, the Town Council voted 5-4 to allow Thompson to apply for the $1 million grant. By that vote, Brodinsky said, the Town Council accepted a “combo application” including the walking trail and the Hall Avenue project. Therefore, Brodinsky said, town councilors accepted Dickinson’s “coercive terms.”

But Dickinson said the entire project has been a long term priority.

“It’s meant to be an improvement to that entire area,” Dickinson said. “It’s been a focus for a project years in the making. It should be something everyone can enjoy.”

Thompson said Thursday that to win the $1 million grant it was necessary to combine the Hall Avenue and walking trail projects. Both projects have been linked since 2005, when the town did the design work concurrently, Thompson said. The federal grant program, administered through the state, sought projects that included transportation alternatives, such as a walking trail, Thompson said.

“They both fall under the broad transportation blanket,” Thompson said.

Thompson, who said he is friendly with both LeTourneau and Brodinsky, understands that not everyone is as passionate about the project as he is.

“In all honesty, there are people who are not for this,” he said. “I think it’s going to be one of the most attractive trails in the area.”

The $1 million grant is a reimbursement, Thompson said, meaning the town must front $1 million through capital funding until the state and federal governments pay out the grant money. Thompson said the process of winning the grant was highly competitive, and he doesn’t want to see the money lost. If the Town Council should decide not to go forward with the project, the grant money would be awarded to another town, he said.

“I understand what they are saying,” Thompson said of the project’s critics. “However, if the town of Wallingford said we don’t want this money, what would happen is my friend (Meriden Public Works Director) Bob Bass would say ‘We’re ready to take it.’ ”

“A huge mistake”

Members of the Quinnipiac River Linear Trail Advisory Committee and advocates of the trail from the senior center, including Dickinson, met Monday to work out a response to Brodinsky’s Sunday op-ed piece. Thompson said Dickinson suggested visible support. Thompson said a petition is being put together, and a band of supporters will be at the May 6 budget hearing that will address the issue. State Rep. Mary Mushinsky, (D)Wallingford, has also submitted an op-ed piece to the Record-Journal countering Brodinsky’s opinion.

“If we don’t use the grant money, someone else on that list will get it,” Mushinsky said Thursday, adding “It would be a huge mistake on the town’s part” to let the grant slip away.

Mushinsky said the $1 million grant “is a major deal to get,” adding that surrounding municipalities such as Meriden would be “happy if we screw this up.” She asserts that the senior center trail has been a part of Wallingford’s Linear Trail plan since designs were first put together in 1999.

Town Council Chairman Bob Parisi, a Republican, said he’s supported the project from its inception, but added that he is “a little concerned about the economy and stress and strain on money” it presents. Still, he said, “You either take the grant money or someone else will.”

Vincent Cervoni, a Republican and vice chairman of the Town Council, said he gets the impression “there are enough members of the public who would look forward to the opportunity” of using the walking trail to justify its existence.

Town Councilor Jason Zandri, a Democrat, agreed, although he said he doesn’t like that the town has to front the $1 million for the grant.

“While I wish there was a way to not put money up and wait, we have to,” he said.

The Town Council will vote on the budget on May 14.