A feasibility study on a multi-use trail that would run through the entire Merritt Parkway corridor was met with both criticism and support at a public information meeting Wednesday evening at New Canaan's Outback Teen Center.
Opponents of the study, conducted by the state Department of Transportation, said the trail would be too expensive, destroy the character of the parkway and force hundreds of trees to be felled.
Judy Neville, a member of the town's Board of Finance, criticized the study saying it doesn't go far enough to mitigate traffic disruptions near congested areas such as the Talmadge Hill train station.
"Traffic on (Route) 106 is a nightmare and you're just adding to that," Neville said. "You haven't responded to that. You're making it worse, significantly worse."
The study looks into building a pedestrian and bike path running the 37.5-mile length of the parkway from Greenwich to Stratford. The 10-foot-wide asphalt path could cost as much as $250 million.
Supporters of the project said the money would be well spent.
"It's not about what everything costs, it's about the value," Oak Street resident Roland Perreca said.
Trail supporters, such as Perreca, said the path would promote exercise, encourage tourism, enhance property values, provide a link to the East Coast Greenway and help ease the traffic congestion on the roads.
The concept of the trail goes back to the 1990s, but it received a boost in 2011 when the DOT received a $1.06 million federal grant from the National Scenic Byways Program to conduct the study.
Environmental consultant Diane Lauricella, a member of the Merritt Parkway Trail Alliance, said one of the most attractive features of the proposed trail is that it would be a space for residents to exercise and have contact with nature. She said the "trends are changing towards exercise and commuting alternatives."
She also suggested that the DOT consider "selling" the project first on the easier sections, where there are no wetlands or tunnels, for instance.
"If it's one big trail with a huge price tag," Lauricella said, "we'll never get off the dime. And I'm sure there are sections that are less expensive and very amenable to development."
Michael Calabrese, a supervising engineer for the study, said the path, in fact, would not be continuous due to several obstacles along the way, such as wetlands. Most crossings would be at-grade, but other areas would have to see tunnels or bridges, for example.
In New Canaan, there would be seven sections of trail, according to the study. The longest ones would stretch for 1.1 mile -- the first between Newfield Avenue in Stamford and Ponus Ridge Road and the latter between Ponus Ridge Road to Route 106 (Old Stamford Road). The shortest section would be a .1-mile stretch from Route 106 to Metro-North Railroad crossing, near the Talmadge Hill train station.
Several opponents of the trail said the path would become a safety issue to those living adjacent to the parkway.
Calabrese said the study considers adding fencing and screening to prevent people from accessing the road or adjacent properties.
He reminded the public that the project still is a feasibility study.
"We don't have the money to build that now," he said. "If the feasibility study gets approved, then the design process starts. At that point, that's when we'll try to get funding."
It could still be years until the construction of the path begins. The study will end with the preparation of an environmental assessment document. If it moves forward, there would be a complete design development undertaken, including rights-of-way and permitting processes, and preparations of a cost estimate, before construction could begin.
Calabrese said the DOT does not have the resources to maintain the path. The towns where the trails would pass through likely would have to assume daily upkeep while the DOT would handle capital maintenance costs, such as repaving.
First Selectman Robert Mallozzi said daily maintenance costs could include increased police patrolling, additional snow plows and even specialized equipment to get to the trail.
"I'm very, very pessimistic about the DOT's ability to maintain that structure without the town," Mallozzi said. "Believe it or not, folks, taxes would absolutely be impacted by this."
Mallozzi said he was worried the snow-removal costs would not be evenly distributed among towns.
"Let's be honest, we're going to get out to the Merritt Parkway for folks who don't even live in our town," he said.
Calabrese noted that some towns are considering not removing the snow from the trails during winter so that people can use it for skiing.
To maintain the character of the parkway, according to the study, the trail would not have lights. However, engineers involved with the project are considering the use of small lights or reflectors for safety reasons to delineate the edges of the path.
Besides pedestrians and bicycle traffic of all skill levels, the study is looking into accommodating equestrians as well.
Jill Smyth, executive director of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, said her organization is worried with the high cost of building and maintaining the ambitious project.
"We all know (the trail) just cannot be maintained and it'll further degrade the parkway," Smyth said. "If you're going to spend $250 million on a bike trail, wouldn't it better to move the trail down to the center of the towns where people can get to? ... The parkway is located, for the most part, very far from town centers."
Neville said most towns in Fairfield Country already have enough trails.
"New Canaan has beautiful trails, in both Irwin and Waveny," Neville said. "All of our sister towns have beautiful trails."
Another forum is scheduled for May 15 in Trumbull. Additional meetings are being planned for Norwalk, Greenwich and Stratford.
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