Each time Xavier Milling crosses Ella T. Grasso Boulevard at Columbus Avenue, he doesn’t know whether he’s going to make it to the other side of the street before getting hit by a car. A year from now, he and the hundreds of New Haveners who cross that intersection every week could have less cause for concern.
That’s because the spot — which is also the intersection of state routes 1 and 10, where pedestrians are hard-pressed to cross without a car turning into their lane, and the sidewalk ends on one side of the road — is getting some attention from the city as a problem area, and is a candidate for a state Community Connectivity grant program.
City officials will decide if they want to request Community Connectivity funding for that project before a grant application is due Aug. 1, or use city resources for Route 1 improvements. Municipalities submit only one request to the state. (Three other contenders for the project are outlined below in the story.)
The busy intersection currently doesn’t have pedestrian crossing signals at all of its corners; only two corners have them. Lights hang from mast poles with industrial wires, and vehicles are tracked by loop detectors (rather than camera tracking), which were the most current technology 10 years ago. It also lacks a sidewalk on one side of the street for about a quarter mile, where the boulevard runs from Columbus Avenue to the New Haven Adult Education Center alongside St. Bernard Cemetery.
In April, a cyclist was struck and killed midday on a Sunday not far from the site, where Columbus House sits on the 500 block of the boulevard.
There’s a “desire” or makeshift foot path (also known as a “goat path”) on the cemetery side, littered with broken glass bottles, soda cans, and candy wrappers. If one takes the path as far as the Adult Ed Center — which is in a large lot on the other side of the street — there’s a crossing signal with a button one can push, and sidewalk begins on both sides of the boulevard.
Taking that desire path or crossing the street may not seem like a tough option, said city transit czar Doug Hausladen — unless you’re crossing the Boulevard at its widest point, and trying not to get hit as cars turn on red from two directions. Or you have limited mobility, and can’t use the desire path with a cane or wheelchair. Or the B, M, or O buses drop you off in a spot that requires multiple street crossings without marked pedestrian signals.
“I’ve been a broken record about this for a little while,” Hausladen said during a site visit, surveying the area in a bright yellow safety vest. He said he first started thinking about the need for localized sidewalk and bus stop improvements years ago, after seeing that the New Haven Road Race included Ella T. Grasso Boulevard in its 20-kilometer and half-marathon routes.
Two years ago, Hausladen said, he started seeking improvements “in five year transportation thinking,” looking for funding sources that would meet the project’s estimated cost of $275,00 to $600,000. Much of that would go toward sidewalk construction, which costs about $120 per foot when drainage is included.
“We are a pretty great sidewalk city (especially comparatively within the state),” said Hausladen by text message Friday. “But some very notable gaps are huge challenges for residents just trying to get to the store, to work, to school, basically to life.”
That’s where the state Community Connectivity grant comes in. Conceived by the state’s Office of Policy and Management (OPM) in 2015, the grants are intended “to help with those missing links” in bike, pedestrian, vehicular and bus safety, said Hausladen. Dovetailing with the program’s offer to do a road safety audit (RSA) on bike, pedestrian, and vehicular safety, grants seek to make the area safer for those that pass through and use it on bike, foot, bus or car.
This year, there will be grants of $75,000 to $400,00 per project.
Improvements to the Boulevard are just one of four contenders in New Haven for the grant. Others include developed trail crossings on the New Haven section of the Farmington Canal, a high-intensity activated crosswalk (HAWK) beacon on Whalley Avenue by Stop & Shop, where pedestrians cross illegally after doing their grocery shopping, and sidewalks on the west side of Sherman Parkway, where Hillhouse High School students are currently forced to walk on the road’s shoulder next to traffic.
As of Friday, Hausladen declined to comment on the record on where the city is leaning. He did note that $2.5 million in state investments has been allocated for the 2019 Fiscal Year, toward improvements in drainage, traffic signal replacement, and sidewalk reconstruction at nearby Kimberly Avenue.
If another one of the projects is proposed and accepted for a grant, Hausladen said, the city will still try to “work with the resources we have.” If sidewalk improvements were to go forward, the Board of Alders would need to vote on them, per the city’s code of ordinances. And then there’s the land where the desire path currently sits, which belongs to the cemetery. A sidewalk would require four and a half feet of space, said Hausladen; the path and surrounding grass provide about four before a fence.
As of Monday morning, St. Bernard Cemetery had not responded to requests for comment. Hausladen said he is in discussions with the management.
There’s also the question of whose job it should be to improve Ella T. Grasso — because it’s a state road, which is technically a state issue. Reached by phone on Wednesday afternoon, Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesperson Kevin Nursick said that there are “a variety of reasons” the state has not yet addressed pedestrian safety issues and the lack of a pedestrian signal at the intersection, the first being that pedestrian needs at the site may have changed since traffic signals were installed.
“This to me is looking that it might be something that’s been here for a while,” Nursick said. “I do know that when these signals were originally installed, it [a pedestrian crossing] might not have been warranted based on the usage. Things change. It might be antiquated equipment.”
In a follow-up call, Nursick said that the state in fact has “a project in the works to replace the signal and upgrade to full pedestrian amenities in 2020.” He added that he does not know exactly how old the equipment is, but estimates it’s been there for 10 years or more.
“Everything will be torn out and replaced with new systems, and there would be pedestrian signals at each leg,” he said. In addition, masts will be replaced with poles and span arms, camera detection will replace loop detectors.
He explained that the Department of Transportation operates on a bid system, through which a dozen or so regional projects are lumped together, and then worked on simultaneously by the same contractor. He said that it’s a cost saving measure for the state. Between now and late 2018, he said the DOT will work on design for the location; it will then send out a bid in late 2018 or early 2019.
The department then gives contractors “180 days or something like that” to complete the project. He estimated that the project would cost “in excess of $100,000.”
“Every single year we are upgrading, replacing new traffic signals at locations across the state—probably 50 or more around the state,” he said.
Back at the intersection, Milling said the thought of improvements is exciting — but that the most important thing to him is crossing the street without worrying that he’ll be hit by a driver who doesn’t observe the crosswalk.
A sociology major and rising junior at he University of Connecticut, Milling is working at Riverside Academy for the summer. His mom drops him there on his way to work each morning. But in the afternoon, he walks back to his home in Beaver Hills. Since starting the job this week, he said, he’s found himself dreading that intersection.
“It’s pretty annoying to know that there are other areas of the city where you have these crosswalks and cross signals,” he said. “You have to be extra vigilant … It makes it scary not knowing if you’re going to get hit or not.”