Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Council reverses decision transportation grant; will build hub near Center 375

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Wednesday, September 22, 2010 11:55 AM EDT

VERNON — In a rare move by Town Council Republicans, the $6.3 million federal grant for an intermodal transportation center, which was rejected at a previous meeting, was revived and approved Tuesday and will be used to renovate Center 375.

The move was the latest in a series of twists for the grant funding, which has been in limbo since it was allocated as part of a $275 billion bill approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in early 2004.

The grant was to construct an intermodal transportation hub with shops, wireless Internet, parking, and other amenities, where commuters could go and switch from one mode of transport to another.

Vernon’s rail lines disintegrated into the forest floor decades ago, leaving only four viable transportation options to link: walking, bicycle, car, and bus.

The original plan for the grant was to build a hub in the downtown Rockville section with access to Rockville General Hospital and including a parking garage so people could pull off busy Union Street.

But that concept, first pitched by former Mayor Diane Wheelock and former Town Administrator Laurence Shaffer in 2003, died after grant administrators said the money couldn’t be used for a parking garage, and political bickering over the site’s potential benefit to the hospital drowned out progress on design work.

Deadlines, dollar amounts, and just about everything else involved in the project have been shifting ever since. Before administrators and council members decided the lack of parking downtown would preclude a hub there, various figures developed concepts for at least three different locations.

In 2007, former Town Administrator Christopher Clark said construction on the hub was expected to start in the summer of 2009.

And just two weeks ago, Town Administrator John Ward presented the council with an entirely new plan to build the hub in a more suburban area of Vernon, siting it at the state Department of Transportation commuter lot at 402 Hartford Turnpike.

Ward warned that the federal government was fed up with the town’s lack of commitment to any of its proposals, and had requested a final commitment in the form of $20,000 to the Greater Hartford Transit District by the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30.

After a lengthy discussion on the merits of the new site, Republican council member Daniel Anderson suggested moving the hub across the street to 375 Hartford Turnpike to take advantage of the town’s existing structure, which houses the Teen Center, a day care center, and other parks and recreation programs.

The complex also is home to the community pool, as well as a heavily used baseball field.

The council endorsed Anderson’s suggestion before deciding to walk away from the grant entirely.

Several members said they weren’t even aware the funding still existed, and were put off by the rapidly approaching deadline, the $20,000 commitment, and the 20 percent, or roughly $1.2 million in-kind responsibility to the town, a requirement of the grant.

But on Tuesday, Mayor Jason L. McCoy told the council that the town would accept the grant after all, because administrators realized they had almost $1 million stashed away to repair the roof at Center 375.

The value of the building, which Ward said would be deducted from the overall in-kind contribution, combined with the roof fund, would cover the town’s $1.2 million cut of the nearly $8 million total project cost, McCoy said.

“The only problem has been the $1.2 million in taxpayer money,” McCoy told the council, saying his plan would “use some money that we would be using anyway.”

The issue immediately became “political,” a word objected to by Democrat Marie Herbst after it was used several times by council Republicans.

“The air to the meeting seems to be more political than what makes sense,” Anderson told council members. “I’ll be very disappointed if people vote against it just because it’s the other side’s idea.”

Council members usually vote along party lines, particularly on issues with such a large financial involvement. This project, however, made for strange bedfellows at the meeting on Sept. 9, and the final vote for the concept failed 6-5 with Republicans Anderson, Mark Etre, Judy Hany, Brian R. Motola, and Sean O’Shea voting in favor of the proposal. Republicans Bill Campbell, Daniel Champagne, Harry Thomas, Democrats Pauline Schaefer, Michael A. Winkler, and Independent council member James Krupienski voted to oppose the plan.

But on Tuesday, Champagne said he regretted his vote, and was relieved he would have a second chance to support the project.

Of the comments he’d heard from council members opposed to the project, “A lot of them just don’t make sense,” Champagne said. “I hope it’s not just a pure political vote.”

Herbst and Schaefer criticized the hub’s relocation to Center 375, saying it wasn’t adding anything to the location and may cause hazardous traffic conditions.

Supporters emphasized that the grant would add sidewalks and access to the nearby Rails to Trails, which would increase safety for pedestrians, though it’s unclear how big a radius around the center would be included in road work.

Anderson said numerous times that the hub would be a benefit to parents dropping their children off at Center 375’s day care, and he said he was “vehemently” opposed to constructing the hub in Rockville.

Council members also considered putting the hub at the commuter lot on Reservoir Road near exit 67, and the parking area at Tri-City plaza. Supporters insisted that putting the hub at Center 375 would accomplish two things, because its roof would need to be replaced anyway.

Detractors said they were missing the point. The purpose of the grant, they argued, was to add transportation access and amenities where there previously were none, sparking economic development.

Putting the hub at Center 375 will not accomplish that goal, both Campbell and Herbst argued.

Campbell said the project at that location, “is not a worthwhile investment,” and Herbst agreed, adding, “I don’t think it’s going to do what you people think it’s going to do.”

The council approved the agreement with the Greater Hartford Transit District and appropriated $20,000 from the capital nonrecurring fund for the project.

Schaefer and Winkler were the only members to vote against the plan, and Herbst was out of the room for the vote.

Thomas and O’Shea were absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

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