Bridgeport Council backs Pequonnock bike trail
BRIDGEPORT — Faced with the threatened loss of federal funds, the City Council this week approved the final $1.8 million design to complete the city’s section of the Pequonnock River Trail bicycle trail that runs to Newtown.
“I’m voting ‘yes’ for this because I just don’t want to lose the money,” said Councilwoman Karen Jackson before Monday’s vote.
The state Department of Transportation recently wrote Mayor Joe Ganim that the federal dollars for the trail could be rescinded by the government if unused as of Sept. 30, 2019. City Hall gave a copy of the letter to Hearst Connecticut Media.
“We would send a wrong message to the state for a city that needs money as bad as we need,” said Councilman Ernie Newton.
Bridgeport’s trail design came under fire in recent weeks from ex-council member and biking enthusiast Robert Halstead, who made a last-minute push to have it re-routed.
The plans have been in the works since 2015. Halstead argued the city did a poor job reaching out to bicyclists for input and too much of the Bridgeport trail section runs along busy streets.
But all Halstead accomplished was delaying the final council vote, originally scheduled for November, to this week. An additional public meeting held on the trail by the council was sparsely attended.
William Coleman, deputy director of planning and economic development, told the council Monday that the “water’s poisoned, air polluted, by misinformation.”
“It’s a good project,” Coleman insisted.
The entire Pequonnock River Rail Trail is 16 miles, with some 9,900 worth of linear feet already built in Bridgeport in Beardsley Park and along Housatonic Avenue.
The remaining 2.5 miles — 13,150 linear feet — of work will complete the Bridgeport section. The $1.8 million cost is mostly being paid for by a federal air-quality grant.
According to Coleman, the majority of the Bridgeport trail is physically separated from vehicular traffic, with 3,750 linear feet of the to-be-built section a bike lane on existing roads, and 3,900 of planned linear feet a “shared right-of-way” for bikes on roads identified with signage.
Halstead has argued since November that the city, unlike the suburban towns the trail winds through, did not try hard enough to keep the trail mostly off-road and in more natural and scenic sections of the city. But Coleman said there is not enough money to do so.
On Dec. 11, Ganim’s office received a letter from the state DOT warning of next September’s deadline for using the federal grant.
“Therefore it is imperative that each municipality ... ensure project schedule adherence,” wrote the DOT.
Coleman said the council’s approval allows his office to finalize construction drawings and bid and award the Pequonnock Trail contract by the Sept. 30 deadline.
A few council members, including Kyle Langan and Christina Smith, sought a compromise. They wanted the final trail design designated “interim” to signal to Halstead and any other critics that improvements can and will be made when funds are available.
Langan admitted that Halstead’s alternatives require “considerably more funding.”
Coleman at Monday’s meeting pushed back, arguing any language that suggests the designs are not final could jeopardize the federal dollars.
“It is the Pequonnock Trail extension final design,” Coleman said. “It is not helpful to introduce some new element (or) nuance.”
Smith, who formerly worked in Bridgeport’s grants department, argued the federal government would not care.
Langan said he did not like voting in response to an “ultimatum” — the threatened loss of the federal money.
Coleman, who is a bike enthusiast, also argued the council has been “sucked a little bit into a false choice.” He said the city has a desire to continue building bicycle paths and promoting biking and the Pequonnock Trail is not the final effort to do so.
“That’s a baseless fear,” Coleman said.
Halstead afterward said, “We’ve blown our opportunity here to really do something nice.”