Give the green light: Plans for Branchville projects move along

Bridges, a traffic light, sidewalks and street lamps — extensive improvements in Branchville — are the focus of two projects totaling over $6 million that are advancing through the planning stages and will soon need town commitments totaling about $618,000.

“We’re fortunate enough to announce about $6 million in grants that’ll be spent right here in Branchville,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi told a gathering of selectmen, town and state officials, and Branchville business owners Monday, Nov. 6, at the Tusk and Cup

Two projects are expected to cost a total $6,860,000. Major aspects of the plans are:

  • A new traffic light at the intersection of Route 7 and Portland Avenue, at the south end of the Branchville train station.
  • Addition of a turn lane for southbound traffic on Route 7 waiting to go into Portland Avenue or the train station.
  • Replacement of the current Portland Avenue bridge over the Norwalk River.
  • Making the Depot Road bridge at the north end of the train station one-way out.
  • Closing the Depot Road railroad crossing to vehicles, with only a pedestrian crossing of the tracks remaining at the north end of the train station.
  • Upgrading the existing traffic signal light at Route 7 and 102 to better accommodate pedestrians who want to cross.
  • Adding sidewalks and street lamps, mostly on the west side of Route 7 from the Wilton town line north past the Little Pub.
  • A new pedestrian bridge as part of the new sidewalk system, crossing Cooper Brook by Route 102 on the west side of Route 7, and possibly another crossing the Norwalk River near Depot Road.

The additional second signal light isn’t expected to slow Route 7 traffic much, according to Town Engineer Charles Fisher.

“They’re all going to be coordinated together, so I don’t think it’s going to be a problem,” Fisher said.

Marconi told Monday’s meeting that the selectmen would discuss the Branchville plans again Wednesday night, and he hoped to take a request for town money to the finance board on Nov. 21, with an eye to have a public hearing and town meeting for the appropriation on Nov. 29.

There are two projects — one proposed by the state to improve safety, and the other conceived by the town as an economic development initiative.

Portland Avenue bridge

The state-initiated safety project is on the eastern side of Route 7. It’s a $4.8-million project including the reconstruction of the Portland Avenue bridge, at the south end of the Branchville train station.

The project also includes making Depot Road, at the north end of the train station, one-way out onto Route 7, and eliminating the more northerly of the two railroad crossings, the Depot Road crossing, for vehicular traffic — though there would still be a pedestrian crossing there.

Reducing the number of railroad crossings is a major state goal, for safety and insurance reasons.

“They really want to get that crossing removed,” Marconi told the selectmen.

“It’s safety and cost,” he later explained. “It’s a very expensive operating issue, operating a crossing. … They’ve been looking to eliminate that for years.”

The rebuilding of the Portland Avenue bridge, at the south end of the train station, will allow the closing of the crossing at the north end of the station because larger vehicles like trucks will be able to turn north off Portland Avenue onto West Branchville Road.

“This is critical for the Nazzaros that own the self storage. Right now they cannot enter by Portland Avenue,” Marconi said.

If vehicular crossing at Depot Road is to be eliminated, the Portland Avenue bridge needs to be reworked so trucks will be able to turn north off it onto West Branchville Road.

“The cost of the federal project for the bridge is $4,810,000,” Marconi told The Press.

The project, he said, includes “elimination of the Depot Road crossing, replaced with pedestrian crossing only, and the replacement of the Portland Avenue bridge, as well as improvements to the intersection of Portland Avenue and West Branchville Road, which will allow trucks to make the left turn to the self storage. It’ll include a new traffic light at Portland Avenue that will be synchronized with the traffic light at Route 102. One final component: the Depot Road bridge will become egress — exit — only, from the train station parking lot.

“So if you want to go into the Branchville train station, the only way in from Route 7 will be at Portland Avenue,” Marconi said. “That will eliminate cars making a left at the existing intersection of Route 102, and they’ll have to travel farther south, where there’s more room for a through-traffic lane, so there’ll be a through traffic lane and a turn lane.

“Heading south there’ll be a left turn into Portland Avenue and a through lane, so as not to back traffic up heading south, which currently happens now — at the 102 intersection, traffic backs up to the north.”

Portland Avenue would remain a two-way road.

“How does this play into the Branchville plan?” Zemo asked when the project was discussed at the meeting.

“The only thing we wanted that they couldn’t do is line up the intersection with Old Town Road,” Marconi told the selectmen.

Earlier versions of the project involved realigning Portland Avenue so it comes out onto Route 7 farther south, directly across from Old Town Road, but the state no longer thinks this can be done.

“There’s a floodway there,” Marconi said.

The project breaks down into $1,040,000 to rebuild the Portland Avenue bridge and $3,770,000 to eliminate the Depot Road rail crossing, for a total of $4,810,000.

The town’s share would be $208,000, and Marconi is looking at where the money will come from.

“The issue is we need to move this quickly. My feeling is it would have to be a special appropriation from the Board of Finance,” Marconi told the selectmen.

The town could decline to participate, Marconi said, but that would kill the project and leave the town responsible for the full cost of any eventual bridge repairs.

“We don’t have to do it,” Marconi told the selectmen. “And they’ll walk away and at some point we’ll have to fix it.”

“This is a no-brainer,” said Selectman Bob Hebert.

Fisher was reluctant to predict when work might actually begin.

“I can’t tell you the timeline, because you’re talking federal money. But they are eager to get it going,” Fisher said. “So the process is Rudy has to run the approval through the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance. Once they approve that, he’ll sign the agreement with the state that authorizes them to proceed, then the state will begin the design process. I can’t tell you how long this is going to take.”

Branchville ‘TOD’

The other Branchville project is town-initiated, and meant to advance the Transportation-Oriented Development plan that the town and the regional planning agency, the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, have been working on under a $750,000 study grant.

Now a $2-million grant under the Transportation Alternatives Program — a “TAP” grant — has been approved for the plan, which includes new sidewalks, street lamps and two pedestrian bridges.

“That’s an enhancement grant that we have qualified for on a competitive basis, to improve pedestrian connectivity in the Branchville center,” Marconi said.

The project would involve putting in sidewalks and streetlamps on the west side of Route 7, from the Wilton town line north past Route 102, reaching the Little Pub and adjacent commercial properties. This includes a pedestrian bridge over Cooper Brook, a tributary to the Norwalk that flows beside Route 102. The traffic light at routes 7 and 102 would be upgraded to better serve pedestrians.

A second pedestrian bridge over the Norwalk River between the train station and the 7 and 102 intersection is part of the plan, but Fisher said this might be dropped if it appears that making Depot Road one-way out will allow enough room to safely accommodate a sidewalk. In that case, that would serve pedestrians and a separate pedestrian bridge over the Norwalk wouldn’t be needed.

“At this point, the use of the Depot bridge as a pedestrian bridge and one-way out vehicular bridge will be investigated by the project consultant once they come on board,” Fisher said. “If the bridge cannot support both, a new pedestrian bridge will have to be installed.”

There would be sidewalks and street lamps as part of the effort to create a village feel in Branchville. “Streetlights similar to Main Street and Danbury Road will be installed in a similar fashion along Route 7 in conjunction with the sidewalks,” Fisher said.

Originally, Fisher had put together an application that would keep the grant under $1 million. But state and federal authorities suggested expanding it to include elements that had been envisioned to be part of a second phase.

“I applied for $900,000. That was for sidewalks along the west side of Route 7 from the town line up to the intersection with 102. The state liked that grant application and said, Why don’t you increase it for the entire project? which includes traffic signalization at 7 and 102 — redoing that intersection, redoing the lights so we get pedestrian timing, making it easier for pedestrians to cross the road,” Fisher said.

“So the total for that whole project is now increased to $2,050,000, and with that the town’s share would be roughly $410,000.”

The hope is that work could begin in about a year and a half.

“We are looking at a possible start date for construction in the spring of 2019, depending on how aggressive we can get with the consultant portion of the project and meeting state and federal guidelines for consultant procurement,” Fisher said.

He’s enthusiastic.

“It’s a project that I’ve wanted to do for a significantly long time. It’s going to enhance Branchville’s marketability in terms of economic development, and tie that in with the remainder of the town,” Fisher said.

“I think it’s a good win for everybody.”

Marconi was excited at the way the two projects were now ready to move ahead — pending approval of the town’s share of the financing.

“This is like a milestone for us that we never dreamed to have happen,” he said. “We originally submitted for half of the TAP grant, which was a submission of $900,000, and we were called by the feds to increase it. This is a pass-through to the state. … And then the Portland Avenue bridge, we didn’t even think was going to happen because of the flood zone and access to the parking lot — all kinds of issues had presented, causing us to think, This is never going to happen. And then for the feds and the state to say, Here’s what we can do, and here’s the funding — it was very, very good news.”

Monday after the presentation at the Tusk and Cup and walking tour of the area, a cluster of Branchville property owners stood across Route 7 from Portland Avenue bridge.

“DOT says they’re going to go back to the drawing board and look at all these options again,” said Joe Fossi, who has a commercial building in Branchville and also sits on the Planning and Zoning Commission. “Maybe we ask Rudy if we can get a seat at the table with the DOT.”