Tensions mount over School Street project

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Tensions were high at last week’s town council meeting when Chariman Michael Riccio concluded the council’s vote on a construction bid for School Street pavement repairs with the statement “I’ve never been so shocked in all my years on this town council.”

In a 7-2 vote the council approved the bid for a $621,700 contract with Dayton Construction Company in Watertown, to improve safety, sight line, drainage and pavement problems on School Street

Town Manager Gary Brumback explained that the construction plans had been coordinated with residents of the street and were part of a much larger project to replace Old Mountain Bridge that has been in the works for several years.

The first step of the overall project is to address the severe safety issues on the street that ranked the worst in town in a 2011 pavement study.

Despite the council’s involvement in reworking the School Street plans for several years, the bid received two opposition votes from Councilor John Barry and Councilor Chris Palmieri.

“This street got more attention only because Mr. Barry sits on the council,” said Chairman Riccio, upset with the opposition votes in the plan’s final stage.

Councilor Barry, a resident of School Street, brought the issue to the council’s attention after a resident approached him with questions about the repair plans. Since then, Barry had been involved in the council’s four to five redesigns of the project. But when it came to what the Chairman called “the ninth hour” of the road’s improvement project, Barry seemed to have changed his position out of monetary concern.

Barry voiced his apprehension that the cost of the project, previously proposed at $1.5 million for the quarter mile road, would mean a $34, 538 cost per house on School Street. He noted that the proposed construction meant 6 percent of the town’s funding for road repairs “being spent on this one street that really not that many people drive on.”

In July 2012 the Town Council approved a bond ordinance appropriating $11 million for design and construction of road and bridge improvements throughout town. The ordinance included the reconstruction of various roads listed in the 2012 Pavement Management Study prepared for the town by Vanasse Hangen and Brustlin, Inc., (VHB) of Middletown.

According to the study, the PCI was generated using surface distress data. The data, collected by VHB, evaluated each road on a scale of 100 – a score of 100 represented a road in perfect condition and a score of zero represented a non-drivable road.

Points were deducted from 100 based on the type and severity of road distress, with base related stress deducting 25 percent of the score, and surface stress deducting 10 percent.

In the 69-page study prepared for Town Manager Gary Brumback, road pavement conditions were evaluated in the fall of 2011 and ranked on a pavement condition index (PCI). At the time of the survey, the average PCI for the town’s road network was graded 76 out of 100 and fewer than 10 roads in the town had a PCI under 50. The School Street PCI ranked the lowest in town, at 37.

Roads that rated from 0 to 56 were considered in poor condition and in need of base rehabilitation that typically involves full depth reconstruction.

Even prior to this study, School Street was identified “as both in horrible disrepair, and a safety issue” said Town Manager Gary Brumback.

Brumback explained two top safety issues that encouraged the town to prioritize the repairs on the street. In some areas School Street is only 15 feet wide, making it impossible to pass a truck and car safely at the same time, while the top of the road features a ledge that limits visibility to just 20 feet. Going over this ledge at the posted speed limit could prohibit a driver from having enough time to stop if a vehicle was stopped on the other side of the ledge.

“The safety things were the primary concern for the town, because if you know about a safety issue and you don’t fix it, the town becomes responsible,” said Brumback, who said the council has been involved in about two or three redesigns over the last few years.

The first plan that addressed these safety concerns had a much higher price tag, of $1.5 million. This project would have flattened, widened, and repaired the road and addressed all the safety concerns. However, after visiting the neighborhood to discuss ideas and options with residents, the council members agreed that this plan would hurt the ambiance of the back road.

Moving forward, the council aimed to develop a new plan that they have been continuously re-working for years. Their goal was “to both make it safe, and preserve the nature of the community,” said Brumback. The approval of this bid was the final step in a process that all the council members had been actively involved in.

The project budget passed by the town council totaled $621,700 for construction—dropping almost $1 million off the original repair plan, accounting for $565,000 in repairs and a 10 percent contingency.

Despite the dramatic price drop Councilors Barry and Palmeri were concerned that the project was still too expensive – “the price tag seems a little bit high for such a small road,” said Councilor Barry.

Barry admitted that as a resident of the street he did not support the repairs, yet acknowledged that other residents did. Despite the neighborhood backing, and years of reengineering to improve costs, safety and preservation, Barry said he was still concerned that the council was using too much of the town’s funding for a road that serves mainly as a cut through road for Wolcott commuters.

Chairman Riccio, who voted for the bid, told the opposing Councilors during the motion’s discussion that it was “extremely disingenuous” of them to vote against the bid over an issue of money rather than safety.

“It is extremely severe, the safety issue,” said the Chairman as he closed the motion’s discussion, “and this council is about promoting public safety.”

The approved construction plans will address the primary safety concerns on School Street, while contributing to the project for the weight limited Old Mountain Bridge that is currently unable to hold trucks and buses. The project is part of a partnership with Wolcott to repair County Line Road between the towns, detouring drivers down route 322 to connect to Meriden Waterbury Road. Repairs are expected to begin in July.

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