Council shoots down plan for intermodal transportation center in Vernon
By Suzanne Carlson
VERNON — After seven years of planning and myriad design proposals, the Town Council has decided to walk away from $6.3 million in federal grant money for an intermodal transportation center after deciding the town’s $1.6 million in-kind responsibility wasn’t worth the potential benefits to commuters and local economy.
On Tuesday, council members voted 6-5 against moving forward with a new design proposal brought forward by Town Administrator John Ward, which envisioned an intermodal transportation hub at the state Department of Transportation commuter lot at 402 Hartford Turnpike.
“Intermodal” is a term used to describe transportation terminals that commuters can arrive in one form of transportation, most often a car or bike, and take another form of transport, usually bus or rail, to a long-distance destination. Recently, several cities have sought to improve facilities for commuters, adding informational kiosks and other amenities in place of a bench at a bus stop.
Tuesday’s commuter lot plan, which included a 1,200-square-foot kiosk powered by a fuel cell, bike racks, and free WiFi, was a far cry from what was originally proposed in 2003.
It was then that former mayor and current administrative assistant to Mayor Jason L. McCoy, Diane Wheelock, and former Town Administrator Laurence Shaffer, first came up with the concept of a transport hub in the downtown Rockville section of town.
Wheelock and Shaffer worked with former U.S. Rep. Robert R. Simmons, R-2nd District, to request funding for the plan, which sought to build a parking garage and enclosed bus stop at 33 W. Main St.
The concept also included a sky bridge connecting the parking garage to Rockville General Hospital, but over the years the project was redesigned several times as it got batted around council meetings and forums for transportation infrastructure.
In 2005, a $116.5 million House transportation funding bill officially allocated $6.6 million to Vernon for the intermodal transportation center, which at that time was still being proposed for what’s known as the Mecca building, former home of Zahner’s Clothiers.
In 2007 the federal government limited the project’s scope and said the grant could not be used to fund a parking garage, after plans for the garage already had been proposed at several other Rockville locations, including the parking lot across from Ladd and Hall Furniture.
The grant also was reduced to roughly $6.3 million dollars, but still required an 80-20 percent split of the total project cost, meaning the town would be responsible for an in-kind contribution of $1.6 million.
Around 2008 as the project continued to drag, some started to assume the intermodal grant already had been lost for lack of action by the town.
And on Tuesday, several council members expressed surprise that the town still had access to the grant, saying they’d thought the funding had been withdrawn a long time ago.
“We’re now on the eve of the grant expiring,” Ward told the council, explaining that the federal government wanted a commitment to the project by the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30.
That commitment needed to come in the form of $20,000 to solidify a cooperative agreement with the Greater Hartford Transit District, Ward said.
The federal government also wanted the town to identify a funding source for the $1.6 million necessary to receive the other $6.3 million within the next six months, and Ward said construction could start in 2012.
Those financial obligations caused council members on both sides of the aisle to question whether the transportation hub was really necessary, despite enthusiastic support for the project by Economic Development Coordinator and Assistant Town Planner Marina Rodriguez and Economic Development Commission member Bruce Kellogg.
Rodriguez told council members that, “the return on investment … I think that is something we need to keep in mind,” saying that the commuter hub would be a boon to economic development in town.
“We think that there’s wonderful opportunities here,” Kellogg added.
He urged council members to overlook any negatives about the commuter lot plan, because “I have yet to see a site that totally fits with everything you want.”
He argued that the new location takes advantage of entrances to the Rails to Trails path system.
Ward also argued that the construction project would be an opportunity to improve sidewalks and pedestrian safety around the busy commuter lot, which is close to a major commercial area.
Republican Bill Campbell said he was having a hard time justifying the $1.6 million the town would have to come up with, telling the council, “I don’t see this as one of the top priorities in town.”
“I have to agree with Mr. Campbell on this. This is a large amount of money to come up with in six months,” council member James Krupienski, an Independent, said, calling the grant funding a “dangling carrot” full of unforeseen complications and restrictions.
Republican council member Dan Anderson proposed moving the project site across the street to leave the busy commuter lot open and instead take over portions of both Center 375 and the Public Works Department.
The council voted to amend the motion to place the site where Anderson suggested before defeating the proposal entirely.
“All for naught,” McCoy said after the vote.
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