Darien vs. I-95

Anger! Opportunism! Fear! Just grab a lawn chair, pack some wine and cheese, and start your weekend with another long-running Fairfield County spectacle under the sky.

The time: Five o’clock almost any Friday afternoon. The place: Post Road in downtown Darien.
The cast: A soccer mom driving her daughter home from practice, trapped in an intersection known as “the box” when the light changes. An au pair using her three-year-old charge as a human shield as she leads him along a crosswalk, avoiding the menacing stare of the hedge-fund executive whose Saab she is walking in front of despite the green light. A harried downtown shopper frantically trying to get her Audi out of the right-turn-only lane, losing it as a parade of stony-faced drivers won’t let her merge. A Bridgeport man who doesn’t want to be here at all, only there’s another accident on Interstate 95 and he wants to be home by seven.

“People are afraid to push strollers across the street,” declares Carol Wilder-Tamme, executive director of the Darien Chamber of Commerce. “Children don’t sit in their strollers, they bounce because they are going so fast.”

Once upon a time, Darien’s Post Road coexisted quite compatibly with the parallel-running I-95. But sometime around the 1980s, things changed. By 1986, 115,200 cars and trucks flowed daily along the interstate past Tokeneke Road in both directions, and that number grew with every passing year until the interstate began to challenge the Long Island Expressway for the title of World’s Longest Parking Lot. Frantic highway motorists started looking for ways to bypass the snarl. They discovered Darien.

Now it’s at the point where many local merchants and their customers feel besieged. The concrete constrictor that is I-95 may not be physically growing, but it is making itself felt on the Post Road, also known as Route 1.

“People are fighting, horns are honking,” says Erica Killion, who a year ago opened the contemporary-clothing boutique erica k on the Post Road where it intersects with Corbin Drive and shrinks to a single lane in each direction. “A driver in the right-turn-only lane has to turn right, but some people getting off the highway don’t realize it. People in that lane try to drive straight, and other drivers honk and yell at them. They all seem to bottleneck. I’ve never seen such confusion.”

George McKnight has been watching the endless motorcade from his store, Fairbanks Photo, for the past twenty-three years. He calls the scene outside his window “a horn-blowing, finger-flying contest.”

“Some people refer to the Post Road as Baby-95, but it’s not designed to handle that type of volume,” he explains. “Friday afternoon, from two o’clock on, has always been a problem. You see incidents at stoplights, on corners, on crosswalks.”

Operating today at an estimated 180 percent of its original design capacity, I-95 continues to see annual traffic increases at a rate of 1.5 percent. According to the state Department of Transportation, the total number of vehicles traveling I-95 in both directions daily past Exit 11 (which connects directly with Route 1 in downtown Darien) rose from 146,800 in 2002 to 151,800 in 2005. If I-95 were a human and not a traffic artery, it would be a prime candidate for an angioplasty.

“We’ve been grappling with I-95 for years,” says Carmine Trotta, assistant director of intermodal planning at the DOT. “I wouldn’t say it’s obsolete, but it doesn’t meet the capacity of today, obviously.”

According to Darien Police Chief Duane Lovello, the number of vehicles getting off at Exit 13, which connects to the Post Road near Norwalk, ballooned from 16,600 a day in 1986 to 24,600 in 2004 — a 50 percent increase that Route 1 wasn’t built to handle, especially in downtown Darien where the road shrinks from four lanes to two.

“When I-95 becomes congested, Darien becomes paralyzed,” he says. He adds that a vast majority of the 700 road accidents in Darien each year occur downtown.

Weighing the Options
First Selectwoman Evonne Klein toured Route 1 one recent afternoon, her voice occasionally drowned out by a passing vehicle’s horn as she pointed out various traffic-flow problems apparent even at noon. “It absolutely has gotten worse,” she says, adding that the congestion now extends to various linking roads in town such as Mansfield Avenue, West Avenue, Leroy Avenue and Tokeneke Road/Route 136.

Back in the early 1990s, when I-95 congestion was beginning to be seen as a major problem, DOT planners analyzed the logistics of adding a lane in each direction. But in municipalities like Darien, the interstate cleaves so closely to downtown centers that it would require prohibitively expensive and unpopular condemnations, “too traumatic” in the words of Trotta. More recently, the idea of double-decking the interstate was entertained, but that is also seen as unlikely now.

Jim Cameron, a mass-transit activist who serves on the Darien Representative Town Meeting, sees highway expansion as the wrong way to go, even if it were feasible. “If you expand the highway, you will only increase demand,” he claims. “If you are fat, you don’t need a bigger belt. You need to go on a diet.”

Cameron also chairs the Connecticut Metro-North Rail Commuter Council, and he believes improved rail service is key to relieving I-95 bottlenecking. He is not alone. Over the past two years, the state government has initiated an ambitious, bipartisan effort to improve mass transit with a focus on rail service, setting aside $1.3 billion in 2005 to purchase 342 railcars over the next ten years to update and expand the entire decades-old Metro-North fleet. A second, larger transportation funding package — for $2.3 billion, also over ten years — was approved last spring.

Also part of that initial funding package are major road redesigns, including one that will add expanded “operational lanes” along parts of the interstate in both directions as it passes through Darien, reducing traffic friction and facilitating better flow. The first of these projects is already under way and is expected to be finished by next summer.

Klein supports operational lanes, though she doubts they will make much difference for Darien’s downtown. Since her election in 2003, she has met with the DOT every year to discuss items she says are triggered by I-95 congestion and its spillover impact on Darien: Should the DOT encourage motorists to use Route 1 through Darien by promoting it as an alternate route when there’s a tie-up on the interstate? Klein and other local officials say that it compounds the Route 1 problem; DOT officials say they divert traffic only when there is an accident on the thruway.

Why does the DOT, which controls Route 1 as a state road, not allow pedestrian crossings where traffic is simultaneously stopped on the Post Road and its side streets, instead of a situation where the light is always green in one or the other direction?

According to John Carey, the DOT’s traffic engineering manager, this is to ensure a steady traffic flow through a statewide transit route. He notes that motorists are required by law to stop when a pedestrian is in a crosswalk. At the same time, he has visited downtown Darien enough to know that “sometimes things deteriorate.”

How about adding tiered parking in central Darien’s railroad station parking lot to add capacity and encourage more commuters to take the train?
The DOT is willing to fund a tiered parking project in Darien, but only at the Noroton Heights station, which Klein calls a nonstarter because of that station’s proximity to local schools.

Cameron would like the state to consider another means of limiting traffic on I-95, one that Connecticut took great pride in eliminating more than twenty years ago: tolls. He calls it value pricing and claims it might encourage some necessary alternative thinking. “Being on the highway at rush hour is not free,” he says. “It comes at a cost to society and other motorists. If you don’t charge for using the highway, people will take advantage of it. That’s what’s happening now.”

Tolls came down in Connecticut in the mid-1980s after a fiery crash at a Stratford toll line killed seven. Cameron says technology has caught up enough to reduce long toll lines, citing the E-Z Pass technology now used in other states, like neighboring New York. He concurs that tolls may not be a universal solution; not every car in New York State has E-Z Pass, and those without must be accommodated. Then there are political ramifications.

“It’s a very unpopular idea for a politician to embrace,” he admits. “I say it’s not a tax, it’s a user fee, and it has worked successfully in other cases as a mitigation tool.”

Though tolls are not a major part of the political discussion at present, Cameron sees a welcome degree of seriousness in the approach being taken by both Republican Governor Jodi Rell and the Democratic-controlled legislature. In years past the politics against taking Connecticut’s southwestern transit corridor seriously were not so much party-based as divided by region, as upstate legislators grumbled about subsidizing their richer southern neighbors. After two straight years of major funding, those days appear over. “There’s an understanding in the legislature that my area needs major improvement,” says Bob Duff, a Democratic state senator whose 25th District covers part of Norwalk and two-thirds of Darien, including its downtown. “The good news is that after twenty years of neglect, we have taken steps necessary to address that.”

Republican assemblyman John Hetherington, whose 125th District encompasses New Canaan and part of Wilton and who has been on the Transportation Committee since he was elected to Hartford four years ago, is impressed by the new attitude.

“It’s finally dawning on legislators throughout the state that this is a matter of importance to all of us,” he says. “Fairfield County is so key to the state’s economy, if you let Fairfield County strangle, it’s going to have an enormous impact on the whole state.”

The Hartford-based Connecticut Business & Industry Association, a lobby that has been leading the charge for more Metro-North funding over the past five years, has articulated a similar position. Eric Brown, a CBIA associate counsel, calls Fairfield County “the gateway to New England, and the choke point.”

Darien may be part of the problem, too. It has been said the average length of a drive on I-95 is just eleven miles, meaning that many use the thruway for local trips. Christopher Bruhl, president and CEO of the Business Council of Fairfield County, a leading advocacy group for better mass transit based in Stamford, believes the issue cuts both ways.

“When someone traveling locally gets off Route 1 and on I-95, that adds to the congestion, just as a commuter getting off I-95 and onto Route 1 adds to Darien congestion,” he says. “One can spill over to the other.”

While he notes that there is no definitive study on the matter, Bruhl is one of many who claim I-95 already exacts a steep toll on the county’s fortunes, one it behooves the state to address. “Anecdotally, the combination of congestion and housing prices has slowed our growth, not our wealth growth, but our business growth,” he says.

Parking Problems
Slowed business growth has an impact on Darien, especially as local developers propose major steps to remake its downtown from an area of isolated boutiques into a true commercial hub, with two large-scale proposals before the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission and more expected to follow.

The Dolcetti family has owned property in downtown Darien since 1927, and brothers Dan and Phil are old enough to offer some perspective on how rough and hairy the Post Road was before I-95 was built in the 1950s. Dan says the downtown’s chief problem is one that most communities would kill for: too much parking.

He notes that present town zoning requires one parking space for every 100 square feet of retail and office space and for every 50 square feet of restaurant space, the kind of regulation that keeps the town from achieving true critical mass. He and brother Phil would like that relaxed, not least because of their plans, with partner John Bowes of the Darien-Rowayton Bank, to create a two-acre commercial center with 43,000 square feet of newly built space, anchored by a Brooks Brothers clothing store and incorporating two restaurants, several stores and an enlarged Darien-Rowayton Bank.
“This is part of a big movement to redevelop the downtown as a real destination,” Bowes says.

The new center would link up with an existing commercial plaza just off Route 1 on Grove Street, as well as a second half-acre parcel being proposed just across the Post Road by another local property owner that would include commercial, office and even residential space. Klein supports their plans. But first the parking regulations need to be addressed. “We are the only town in Fairfield County with parking regs like ours,” claims Bowes.
Other merchants agree with that line of thinking. “There are people who will drive their car to go down a block or cross the street,” says George McKnight.

If this line of thinking becomes action, he adds, these new pedestrians will require safer means of crossing the Post Road than are now available: “Downtown Darien is from Leroy Avenue to Sedgewick Avenue. That’s no farther than walking from one end of the Stamford Mall to the other, but it’s not a continuum here. You have lots of streets to cross. If you must stop and wait for cars to pass, it makes it difficult to get from one end to the other.”

That requires help from the DOT, a problem especially now. The department spent most of last summer in a leaderless state, with commissioner Stephen E. Korta II and his two deputy commissioners all stepping down for various reasons.π Rell replaced Korta with former Department of Motor Vehicles chief Ralph Carpenter in August, at the same time filling both deputy commissionerships. However Carpenter works out, the shifting leadership situation makes matters more difficult for Darien.

“We desperately need a statewide transportation strategy and some vision,” Klein says.

Also critical to Klein is tiered parking at the Darien train station lot, which would connect nicely with the Dolcetti-Bowes plan. Their parcel borders the train station, and they plan to replace a fence that now divides the two areas with a flight of steps for easy access in both directions. Again, all this requires some give from the DOT that the agency has thus far not demonstrated.

“From my experience at the DOT, it’s my way or the highway, no pun intended,” Bob Duff notes. “That’s got to change.”

Operational Lanes

Even if Darien succeeds with DOT help in creating a more pedestrian-friendly downtown, one that reduces traffic on Route 1, it won’t necessarily impact I-95, where traffic continues to grow. An improved Metro-North may slow the increase in I-95 traffic, but it is not expected to reduce the number of cars and trucks on the highway, at least not anytime soon. “There’s no magic bullet here,” Klein notes.

More immediate aid, for the thruway if not the downtown, may come in the form of new operational lanes, the one being built between Exits 10 and 11 as well as others currently on the DOT drawing boards. An operational lane southbound from Exit 10 to Exit 8 in Stamford has reduced travel times in that area by an estimated five to seven minutes. DOT officials say there has been a notable improvement in both safety and capacity too.
 
“It allows more time for people to get in and out of the mix as far as mainline traffic is concerned,” says Carmine Trotta. “It makes for less friction and more free-flowing, gradual travel.”

For Bruhl, who as a commuter into Stamford attests to the operational lane’s success there, more such lanes may help ease the thruway’s accordion-like traffic flows if not increase actual capacity.

“Ask commuters what they want, and the answer is a predictable, reliable journey,” he says. “They can handle a forty-five-minute commute if it’s always forty-five minutes. What they can’t handle is something that’s thirty minutes one day, and ninety minutes the next. They want consistency.”

Not everyone is a fan of operational lanes. Cameron calls them a “stealth fourth lane,” a baby step toward highway expansion and further dependence on outdated asphalt solutions. Nor will it be as easy to create such lanes all the way through Darien, from Exit 10 to Exit 13 in both directions, as it was in Stamford.

“We have to pick our spots,” says the DOT’s Carey. “There are some geometric issues. Other spots, it’s relatively easy.”
π
The irony of Darien’s situation would not be lost on Yogi Berra: People may be less willing to come downtown since it’s so crowded. But there are those, like the Dolcettis, who see opportunity amid the chaos, and others who already see positive change.

Erica Jensen, owner of the Post Road women’s clothing store Helen Ainson, knows all about the need to be assertive when trying to move in and out of the traffic flow. “You push the nose of your car out and hope they don’t hit you.”

Just the other day, she recalls, someone left the store without her cell phone, and because no one would let her car through, she had to park across the street and run back to the store herself. But Erica, who opened her store here after having operated one in Greenwich, has no regrets about her current location.

“The town of Darien has been getting better in the past few years, much more vibrant and alive, with more shoppers coming here,” she says. “It’s terrible having I-95 so close, but it is a good place and it’s getting better.”

Is something bothering you about I-95? You can voice your opinion by getting on the highway — the information highway, that is. For the state Department of Transportation, visit the DOT website, ct.gov/dot, and click on the “Contact us” tab near the upper right corner of the screen. “We get quite a few comments in on a daily basis,” says DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick, who adds that the comment will elicit a response via e-mail or a phone call from someone at the DOT directly concerned with the problem at hand.

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