Have you forgotten about the Route 7 and Route 15 interchange project yet? With no major updates since last April, it may be easy to – but the wheels are still turning over on the permitting side. To refresh your knowledge, the Connecticut Department of Transportation has embarked on an initiative to “provide the missing connections” between the two highways, presenting us with two alternatives to reach that goal. One option is overblown, unimaginative, and uncontemporary, while the other is a move in the right direction.
Alternative 21D is the concept that appears to be a plate of spaghetti if you squint just right. This option fully provides access to both highways from all directions using high-speed ramps and loops. A frequent car commuter would laud this design, as it serves to facilitate uninterrupted traffic flow (that is, unless an errant driver ruins it for everyone else) between both highways. Sounds good, right? In a very narrow-minded focus of the benefits to suburban drivers, yes. But in terms of the surrounding community, this new monstrosity of an interchange would attract more drivers to the area – a concept called induced demand.
This principle, which has proven true time and time again in cases of building new roadways or widening existing thoroughfares, tells us that when it becomes easier to drive through an area, more drivers will take advantage of that benefit until a new equilibrium of traffic congestion is reached. As the volume of vehicle traffic increases in the area, so does the level of air pollution making its way to the neighbors who live nearby. Proponents of large highway projects such as this one will claim that more vehicle infrastructure will improve air quality by speeding up traffic and lowering idling emissions but fail to admit the truth that more drivers now frequenting this area ultimately contributes even more pollutants to the air than could be eliminated by quelling congestion.
In addition to environmental impacts, let us delve into the design of Alternative 21D further. To suspend these new haphazard strands of spaghetti in the air, the Department of Transportation is proposing 14 new bridges to be constructed – all bridges that will have to be maintained for decades to come and eventually replaced using your tax dollars in order to save suburban drivers a few minutes off their trip.
Three sections of dangerous, high-speed weaving areas will be created at ramp junctions. Perhaps the most insulting feature of Alternative 21D is the fact that a high-speed ramp is shown to carry traffic from Route 15 and Main Avenue northbound on Route 7, only for the highway to end one mile later. This entire design is attempting to prop up a freeway with no future.
So, is there any hope for a better solution to this interchange? There is, and it starts with the ideas laid forth in Alternative 26. This design seeks to make the connections between the two highways in the simplest way possible – using intersections. Compared to Alternative 21D, this concept only adds six new bridges, does not create weaving sections, and will cost significantly less to construct and maintain. But the most important side effect of this option? It makes converting the failed Route 7 freeway into something appropriately scaled, imaginative, and contemporary possible.
Route 7 is a physical obstruction within Norwalk, cutting off streets where buildings were demolished in favor of a highway right-of-way. Turning Route 7 into a surface-level boulevard in the future would restore these street connections by bringing the roadbed to grade with the surrounding community and establishing intersections instead of overpasses.
The land once occupied by on and off-ramps could be sold to create housing, businesses, or parks. A new transit line could run the length of this boulevard, connecting residents all the way from Glover Avenue to downtown. Bicycle paths and wide sidewalks could ensure that people not in cars have the ability to safely and efficiently move about their city as well. And with an assumed speed of 30 miles per hour instead of 60, a 3.5-mile Route 7 boulevard would only increase travel time by car between Interstate 95 and Route 15 by less than five minutes. This is entirely possible – look at the real-life examples of Route 34 in New Haven, the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, or the Inner Loop in Rochester. Just because Route 7 is a freeway now does not mean it has to be one forever.
Returning back to the project’s goal: to “provide the missing connections.” This statement is not entirely accurate. Because anyone who can read a map will see that these connections already exist. Are you a westbound driver on Route 15 wanting to go north up Route 7? Take the Main Avenue exit and make a right. Route 15 westbound wanting to go south on Route 7? Exit onto Main Avenue, and just over a mile away, there’s an on-ramp from Route 123. The links are already there. What’s “missing” is the high-speed, free-flowing (alleged) connections. It’s not like there’s absolutely no way to get where you want to go in the current configuration. It just takes a few minutes more.
If the Connecticut Department of Transportation wants to talk about missing connections, then let’s have a conversation about them. Let’s talk about missing sidewalk connections: Route 7 north of Grist Mill Road, Route 123, and Route 136 have sidewalks that end abruptly, are not wheelchair accessible, or simply do not exist for long sections, forcing people to forge their own paths through the dirt. Let’s talk about missing bicycle connections: bike infrastructure in Norwalk is virtually non-existent, save a few downtown bike lane locations which don’t even connect to other bike facilities, pushing cyclists into the road where an unequal battle for space is fought with aggressive car drivers who feel entitled to the street.
And finally, let’s talk about how the construction of Route 7 itself in the 1970s destroyed connections within and between neighborhoods, severed streets, condemned and razed communities, creating a visible scar that has separated Norwalk into East and West. Why? To speed up an environmentally-destructive way of commuting only by a few minutes –- the same goal that the current Department of Transportation has designed this project around. Fifty years later, identical methodologies and biased ideas of progress that plagued the initial design of Route 7 still linger in the polluted air around this so-called “improvement.”
Is spending close to $200 million worth it to save a few minutes for drivers, when the state is already struggling to maintain its existing infrastructure? $200 million could get the residents of Norwalk hundreds of miles of much-needed sidewalk and bike lanes. Based on 2019 financial numbers, $200 million could fully fund the Norwalk Transit District for the next 10 years. But instead, with free-flowing vehicle traffic being the preference, $200 million will get Norwalk a plate of angel hair pasta solely for car drivers.
To be fair, Alternative 21D is indeed innovative – if we were still in the 1960s. Now, in the face of a climate crisis and a transportation fund that is drying up, creating new roadways that will induce more driving is unambiguously wasteful and wholly antithetical to any climate goals that the state is working toward. If Route 7 actually continued to Danbury, this interchange project may have made sense, but instead, the Department of Transportation is trying to revive a highway planning disaster and failure that flatlined long ago.
If Alternative 21D is chosen, what message does that send to the citizens of Norwalk? That Route 7 splitting the city in half is the best land use? That maintaining Route 7 as a freeway and continuing to expose the neighborhoods it cuts through to concentrated, respiratory disease-causing air pollution is good? That the speedy travel of personal vehicles is the ultimate end goal, and any means to achieve that is justified?
Highways have never, and will never, make a city great. People and communities do. Let’s make the right first step by selecting Alternative 26, and work to provide the missing connections by reconnecting Norwalk back to itself.
Bob Moses is a sustainable transportation advocate from Norwalk.