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The Jury Is Out on the Flower Street Closure

CTfastrak cross section

Why did the pedestrian cross the busway? To get to the other side.

As we suggested might happen in last week’s column, on Tuesday, August 21, 2012, at 12 noon, more than three dozen people gathered at the I-84 Viaduct on Flower Street to discuss the potential closure of Flower Street for CTfastrak, aka the busway.

The big hot sun beat down on Asylum Hill and Frog Hollow neighbors, Amtrak police, CT Department of Transportation personnel, and representatives of Michael Baker Engineers, Inc.  We get that ConnDOT likes to act with impunity, and meeting with neighbors is such a chore.

Yet ConnDOT is starting to realize we won’t back down on this one.

Although the most important part of the meeting did not arise from the spray paint on Flower marking the location of the new piers holding up I-84, or where the walls protecting the buses from those piers would be, but from dialogue with ConnDOT’s transit administrator, Michael Sanders.

For those loyal 40-Year-Plan readers with long memories, let’s go back to February 14, 2007, and review an article I wrote that day called “ConnDOn’T.” In it, I reported on a racial and sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a ConnDOT employee named Daphne McKinney against Sanders, the DOT and a number of other DOT employees.

At the time, the busway was under consideration, and I wondered: “if racism is so pervasive in ConnDOT that employees no longer feel comfortable working there, does that exclusionary, prejudicial attitude carry over into the design and implementation of transportation projects?”

The question still stands, especially after Tuesday’s meeting. Transcripts of McKinney’s trial show her lawyer W. Martyn Philpot arguing in opening statements that the discrimination was pervasive, and the DOT just didn’t care. Sanders and a number of other DOT employees testified. I will explore that testimony at a later date.

McKinney lost a jury verdict in February 2011. As much as I believe in the jury system, I know first-hand it is flawed, and jury decisions do not always reflect what really happened. McKinney’s defeat does not mean her allegations were unfounded.

McKinney appealed to the Second Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals. In the July 24, 2012 decision rejecting her appeal, the Court of Appeals noted her complaints about the trial court:

That it granted one defendant a directed verdict; that it admitted of evidence of McKinney’s purported litigiousness; that it admitted favorable testimony from DOT while excluding testimony from McKinney’s union representative; and that it refused to grant McKinney’s motion to compel disclosure of an internal investigative report of the DOT.

The last one sticks in my craw. The attorney general’s office withholding documents? And a federal court letting the AG off the hook? I’m shocked. Not. An FOIA request probably won’t obtain it, either. So what is DOT hiding from McKinney and us about what goes on at HQ? And why?

On August 6, 2012, the Court of Appeals awarded more than $3000 in costs to the state.  That same day, the bagman for the sovereign, the Office of the Attorney General, began attempting to collect those costs.

Attorney Philpot had no comment on the case. He clearly invested a ton in righting the wrong of discrimination, and came out empty handed. This is why civil rights get trampled. Because the state rarely loses civil rights’ suits, so its agents act accordingly. Plaintiffs rarely win.

Now, when I wrote last week’s column about ConnDOT’s disregard for the people who use Flower Street, I looked up the results of that case. But I did not print them in the column, because I didn’t have room.

I made a mental note that I needed to update my website to reflect the new verdict. But I didn’t. After Tuesday’s meeting, I made haste to change the40yearplan.com to reflect the victory for the state.

Why? Because I don’t want to bear the blame for closing Flower Street. Sounds strange, almost narcissistic, right? It’s not.

If a powerful DOT technocrat has a vendetta against you, and you learn about it, it is best to try to eliminate any reasons for that vendetta. Especially if you advocate (along with dozens of others) for a position, and DOT doesn’t seem to be hearing it. You start to wonder if other factors are at play.

Apparently, this whole situation with my 2007 news report about McKinney’s lawsuit still being online really upsets former defendant Michael Sanders. We’re talking Jim Calhoun basketball coach belligerent upset.  Perhaps had Sanders shown his bullying and lack of professionalism on the witness stand, McKinney might have won.

But on Tuesday, the dozen or so people who witnessed Sanders’ angry display towards me over a five-year-old story were not on the jury.  The people who saw this shoot-the-messenger moment were neighbors who live in the areas affected by the Flower Street closing.

As soon as Sanders finished his tirade about Google not being fair to him, I apologized to Jennifer Cassidy. She worked hard to organize this meeting, and I do not want to give DOT a reason (however thin) to ignore the neighborhoods and close Flower Street. Yes, people can be that petty.

Others who saw what happened told me afterwards and said that the points I made about the pedestrian overpass or a bridge similar to a Laurel Street bridge over the tracks were good, but that Sanders seemed to ignore them or down play them. With some level of relish for the task, too.

The DOT should not disregard input because a bureaucrat has a thin skin. And it made me feel even more that Daphne McKinney got a raw deal in court.

Although maybe I am a narcissist, because I saw the engineer from Michael Baker Engineering, Inc. disregard everything cycling advocate Chris Brown had to say. Michael Baker Engineering, Inc. is not doing the state any favors.

While a handful of us stood around the map, Cassidy asked if anyone from the state was there. The guy from Baker said yes. But then we realized he is a contractor. We wanted a ConnDOT rep. Sanders was eventually brought over, and the situation went south.

We cannot afford to have a situation like on I-84 in Cheshire, where the catch basins aren’t connected to a drainage system. This history, combined with the calculus demonstrated by DOT’s leaders on CTfastrak, makes us all in the neighborhood nervous.

Sanders displayed a cold, calculated view of where we live. He mocked the lack of pedestrians on a sunny summer day, despite the fact that dozens of people strolled by (perhaps enticed by the team effort of Red Rock Tavern, Dunkin Donuts and Subway to offer great deals for lunch).

Flower Street is not Fifth Avenue. I think Sanders thinks we think it is. We know it is not. Sanders explained that he cannot justify a $30 million bridge for 5,000 cars a day on Flower.  I am not sure how much a pedestrian overpass will cost. But clearly, the DOT doesn’t think they can justify it, either.

But DOT hasn’t done simple things to build trust with the neighborhood, like show us other drawings, or show us the results of an updated pedestrian study with new numbers on the numbers feet traversing that stretch of asphalt.

Flower Street was named after Hartford Mayor Ebenezer Flower, who served from 1851 through 1853, the era of the founding of Bushnell Park. I am certain he would be aghast that his street, and the home rule of Hartford, is being so thoroughly disregarded by the sovereign state here.

Walking is a fundamental human right. We demand that the DOT respect that human right.

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