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July 18, 2009

Fix My Station... Revisited

Three years ago, the Commuter Council launched the “Fix My Station” campaign, calling on Governor Rell to fix the crumbling, dilapidated and often-times dangerous conditions at CDOT-owned rail stations from New Haven to Greenwich.

Commuters sent in dozens of photos of their stations showing exposed wires, mold and graffiti which we posted on our website. Months later, CDOT finished a careful station by station engineering analysis recommending not just repairs but improvements. Special funds were allocated by the legislature for the needed work. Then… nothing happened.

Once again, we’d identified a problem, studied it and issued reports… and assumed the job was done. Few, if any, repairs were ever made to stations. If we were to revisit the same stations today we’d find things little improved.

But then, along came the Federal government this year with its “stimulus money” to create jobs with “shovel ready” public works projects.

Regional planners moaned, caught in a classic “Catch 22”. Because they had not been allowed for decades to plan for work that wasn’t already funded, there was little work that was truly “shovel ready”… except, in Connecticut’s case, at the train stations.

Here’s what happened at one station… Noroton Heights in Darien… but is doubtless being replicated across the country with similar public works projects.

One of the problems indentified at Noroton Hts as far back as 2004 was two sets of crumbling concrete steps leading from the west end of each platform up to Hollow Tree Ridge Road. Each set of stairs contains 28 steps.

Town officials initially estimated the repair work would cost $225,000, and the repairs were ordered, pending accumulation of enough money from parking revenues from commuters to pay for them.

Then the CDOT got involved. Because the steps were close to the track and overhead catenary power lines, CDOT said that Metro-North “flag men” would be required to oversee the repair work. That would add $80,000 to the job.

Because of the delays and since building supplies were then in such demand, prices escalated and the final bid for the work topped $400,000.

Then, along came Uncle Sam. When the feds dumped billions onto the states, somehow Hartford decided that $1.6 million should be spent at the Noroton Heights rail station. This would mean that in addition to fixing the steps, platform canopies could be extended and the platforms themselves could be resurfaced… projects long dreamt of but never put to paper by planners.

But be careful what you wish for.

Because Federal funds were now involved, CDOT had to revisit the stair rebuilding to be sure the work met Washington’s standards, not just Darien’s or the state’s.
Now, $30,000 will go to CDOT just to administer the project. But because CDOT is now under-staffed thanks to recent layoffs and early retirements, they can’t administer the job. The work is delayed again and the stairs probably won’t be repaired until 2010, six years after they were first identified as needing the work.

Had the Federal stimulus money gone directly to the towns, work would probably be underway by now. Heck… with a crew of Boy Scouts, a few sledge hammers and some local contractors, the steps could have been fixed in one week summers ago!
Instead, the steps are still crumbling. Federal funds are not being spent. Jobs have not been created. And another summer construction season will probably be wasted.

The “Fix My Station” campaign seemed like such a great idea three years ago, but those were simpler times and I was probably naïve to think anything so important could ever be done so quickly and easily. After all, this is Connecticut.

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