At the opening of a new 1.8-mile stretch of bicycle trail in Canton, a longtime rails-to-trails advocate welcomed the presence of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his acting transportation commissioner, James P. Redeker, as a milestone in a long struggle.
“Five years ago, it never would have happened,” said R. Bruce Donald, the president of the Farmington Valley Trails Council, the non-profit advocacy group that has been both partner and critic of the DOT as it pushed for what is now a nearly complete 29.5-mile loop trail.
Work on the long-delayed segment of the Farmington River Trail suddenly began after the DOT redirected soon-to-expire federal stimulus funds to a project that had no other ready prospects for financing. With the contractors hungry for work, it came in under budget at $900,000.
It is an experience advocates hope to see replicated as the Malloy Administration’s DOT promises a new aggressiveness in helping advocates and municipalities complete trail systems that been in the works for decades.
Connecticut has badly lagged other states in spending on the off-road, multi-use trails that have been a boon to recreation and tourism and even an alternative mode of commuting elsewhere. But the DOT is displaying a new flexibility, especially on funding.
Malloy is pledging a commitment to completing Connecticut’s 196-mile portion of the East Coast Greenway, a 25-year-old effort to knit together a disconnected collection of trails from Florida to Maine. Farmington Valley is a key link in the system.
The Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, an ambitious New Haven-to-Northampton, Mass. route, passes through the valley, where progress too often has relied on the resources and enthusiasm of individual towns, like Simsbury, Avon, Farmington and Canton.
Donald says those communities were “early adopters”–unlike the DOT.
Redeker, a former mass transit administrator from New Jersey, is the latest transportation chief to promise a “new DOT,” an agency ready to move beyond being a builder of highways to an overseer of a multi-modal transportation network that includes multi-use trails.
“I’d say it’s moving very quickly from being a highway department to being totally intermodal, with a huge shift into transit–and now this,” Redeker said, referring to a new initiative to fill in the gaps on a slowly growing network of trails.
The initiative includes the appointment in February of Kate Rattan as the first full-time coordinator at DOT for non-motorized transportation. And changes in funding policies have been in the works since April 2010, seven months before Malloy’s election.
The promise of a new DOT is a song that Donald and other trail advocates have heard before. Redeker is the third commissioner in less than two years, all of whom pledged support for multi-use trails. Donald said advocates are encouraged by what they are seeing and hearing, but they’re also looking for results.
“The old DOT, there was a [part-time] bike/ped coordinator. He had the unenviable task of trying to push forward something that patently was of no interest to speak of at DOT,” Donald said. “He did not have very much power to move things forward.”
The test for the new DOT will be its resolve and creativity in overcoming red tape in funding projects.
“This past November, we started making a lot of changes,” Rattan said. The biggest, she and other officials said, is a change in funding formulas that will allow DOT to more quickly start projects without a contribution from cash-strapped towns.
Donald said one of the biggest frustrations for advocates has been seeing the DOT fail to spend some of the $8 million in federal “transportation enhancement” funds that comes to the state annually.
“Our funding policies sometimes have disallowed communities from using some types of funding, even though technically eligible” for trails, said Tom Maziarz, the chief of policy and planning. “The enhancement program, that’s the one, historically, we have not been particularly effective at utilizing.”
The symbol of that failure is the long, frustrating struggle to carry the now-wildly popular Farmington Canal Heritage Trail across Salmon Creek in East Granby. Using the old superstructure of a sturdy railroad bridge, it seemed like a relatively simple project.
The canal trail may be the biggest accomplishment of the rails-to-trails movement in Connecticut. When complete, it will run from New Haven to Northampton, Mass., following of an abandoned canal and railroad system.
The longest completed stretch in the state is 22 miles of paved trail, much of it under a graceful canopy of shade trees, between Farmington and Southwick, Mass. But for years, the trail was officially closed at Salmon Creek.
It turned out that designing and funding the construction of a bicycle and pedestrian bridge across ironwork that once easily carried locomotives and freight proved to be anything but simple.
A federal requirement that the trail be accessible to emergency vehicles was interpreted by DOT to mean the bridge must be built to handle an ambulance, which drove up the cost.
An even bigger obstacle was what the DOT concedes today was a misguided funding policy that treated the canal trail, a regional asset that sprawled across 53 miles of the state, as a series of discrete local projects.
Under the DOT’s rules, that meant tiny East Granby was on the hook for a 20-percent share of the $790,000 cost of the bridge deck, since federal enhancement funds cover no more than 80 percent of any project. The town didn’t have the money, so construction was postponed.
(The bridge finally was built in 2009, with a multi-year fundraising campaign covering nearly half the local share.)
Maziarz said the DOT now splits the $8 million in enhancement dollars into two funds: one that operates with the traditional local match; the other focuses on projects of regional significance, with the state responsible for the match.
As the administration of Gov. M. Jodi Rell was winding down, the DOT recruited Maziarz from the Capitol Region Council of Governments, where Donald says Maziarz had developed a reputation as a problem-solver and backer of alternative transportation.
“The fact they hired Tom Maziarz away from CRCOG continues to amaze,” Donald said. “He is the real deal. He gets things done. The whole advocacy community was pleased.”
Maziarz said the DOT, with the appointment of Rattan as its full-time coordinator, is now playing a role that had been ceded to advocacy groups and towns.
“There was no central planning for how statewide or inter-regional trails were going to get done. There was no one coordinating how the Farmington Canal trail was going to get built,” Maziarz said. “Every individual community was on its own.”
Maziarz said Redeker and his predecessor under Rell, Jeffrey Parker, have strongly backed the effort to change the DOT’s attitude towards pedestrians and cyclists.
Malloy has reinforced that message, addressing the national board that oversees the East Coast Greenway at a meeting in Simsbury on a Saturday morning in April.
“He spoke to the importance of bike and pedestrian activities,” Maziarz said.
He chose the meeting to announce that the DOT had just been awarded a grant to explore the feasibility of a multi-use trail along the Merritt Parkway right of way, which could provide a route for the East Coast Greenway into New Haven, where it is to follow the canal trail up to Simsbury, then turn east to a proposed trail into Hartford on a rail right of way, the Griffin Line.
Aside from Malloy’s backing, Redeker says the multi-use trails also enjoy coordinated backing of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which oversees a recreational trail program largely responsible for another segment of the greenway, the Airline trail through eastern Connecticut.
He now meetings regularly with Dan Esty, the commissioner of DEEP, and Catherine Smith, who oversees economic development and tourism. One of their agenda items is completion of the canal trail.
Laurie Gianotti, who oversees trail development at the DEEP, said the coordination between her department and the DOT are much improved at the staff level.
“We are collaborating with managing the projects, rather than have the towns do it,” she said. “It is working out well, and a lot of the credit goes to Kate and Tom Maziarz.”
But in the advocate community, Donald says the optimism about a new attitude at the DOT is tempered by nagging concerns that any gains could be lost by a funding crunch, either in Washington or in Hartford.
One of the many cutbacks planned if a labor-concession deal is not ratified this week: Gianotti is to be transferred to another post, and the DEEP’s trails position eliminated.