First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker's Traffic and Pedestrian Task Force meeting April 27.
First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker’s Traffic and Pedestrian Task Force meeting April 27.

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker on Thursday convened a meeting of her appointed Traffic and Pedestrian Safety Task Force to update townspeople on what had been privately decided after their public input many months ago.

The safety concerns — ranging from busy roads to side streets — have been sorted into various colored “buckets,” green, yellow and red, basically what can be done soon/inexpensively to thanks, but no chance.

“What our purpose is tonight, because this is what we said we would do for all of you, is that this team of experts would meet twice a year with the public, and in those meetings, we would try to accomplish two things,” Tooker said.

“We would update you on what we’ve accomplished at a high level — there’s a lot that’s gone on in the last six to nine months relative to traffic and pedestrian safety that we’re not going to itemize every single one of them, but the spreadsheet that categorizes them is a living document and it does live on our website.”

Speakers on Thursday once again expressed concerns from around town, including speeding cars, the need for speed humps or other traffic calming elements, inadequate sidewalks, lack of respect for pedestrians and bicyclists, and crazy intersections (many involving state roads, outside local control).

Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich mentioned progress on several state-involved areas, including turn-lane and sidewalk additions to a large swath of Post Road East.

His comments highlighted the difficulties of working with the state, which can apparently take years to bear fruit.

For instance, the intersection of Easton Road and Weston Road (Routes 136 and 57), has been one the town’s most puzzling intersections for motorists for many decades.

“It’s been a problem all the 30 years I’ve been here,” Ratkiewich said. “And people have expressed the desire for us to do something to fix that intersection.”

He said the town started talking with the state seven years ago.

“They have now made that into a project,” he said.

He said the complex intersection will be signalized, meaning traffic lights.

One of the other alternatives, he said, would be to add rotaries.

“But the rotaries don’t work because they make the traffic flow too well,” he said. “And when you make the traffic flow too well you’ve got to also look at the one road that’s not ever mentioned at that intersection and that’s the Merritt Parkway.”

“So, if the traffic flows too well through rotaries and goes onto the on-ramps of the Merritt Parkway we clog up the Merritt Parkway at rush hour,” Ratkiewich said. “So, they [DOT] opted for the signaled intersection where they can time entry …”

Another area where progress was being made was along Cross Highway, where there are three high-accident intersections. A variety of roadway improvements are planned, as well as adding sidewalks to safely get students and others to their destinations.

One tricky part will be a bridge widening/replacement along Cross Highway, Ratkiewich said.

David Hirshler of Gorham Avenue, who walks about 25 miles a week, was one of several people who addressed the difficulties that pedestrians encounter.

“Great progress, thanks to everyone,” he said. “I’ve think you’ve made some really significant changes.”

“The biggest problem I see is in existing crosswalks,” he said. “The signs that are there that supposedly ask people to yield to pedestrians are ineffective. Cars blow threw them all the time. I’m in the crosswalk, I wait for them, I assume they’re going to stop and they don’t.”

Many speakers, while expressing concerns, were thankful for the increased focus on traffic safety, the Police Department’s stepped-up traffic enforcement, and the town’s continued nudging of the state Department of Transportation.

The officials got a round of applause at the end of the meeting.

Open government issues remain

The Westport Journal has made open-government inquiries into what was happening at what Tooker on Thursday called “a high level.”

Tooker has touted her traffic task during podcasts, at press conferences, and in press releases, for months. It was mentioned in the town’s successful application for a $450,000 federal grant.

The Westport Journal, under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, requested information about the task force, including who were its members, what was its charge, when had it met and when would it meet in the future. Also requested were records of notices of meetings, agendas and minutes.

The only reply received was from Town Attorney Ira Bloom, who said the group is made up of staff, and not subject to FOI.

Last month, the Journal asked Russell Blair, director of education and communications for the state Freedom of Information Commission, about the public agency status of such a group if it was given a task to solve, such as making recommendations on traffic and pedestrian safety issues.

“The FOI Commission does make exemptions for meetings of staff,” he said. “But if this is a task force or a working group, something created by the first selectwoman, then it would be considered a public agency,” Blair said.

The Westport Journal is still waiting for the information requested from the town.

Thane Grauel grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond for 35 years. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.