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A group of town residents collaborating with Milford residents and small business owners is trying to rally opposition to the proposed plan for expansion of I-95 Interchange 33, which has been much-touted by Stratford Mayor John Harkins.

Holding their first organizational meeting at the Margaret Egan Center in the Devon neighborhood of Milford on Sept. 29, former Milford state house speaker James Amann spoke alongside Stratford Action for the Environment’s (SAFE) Charles Perez to explain their opposition to the plan that would add a southbound Exit 33 in Stratford and add a northbound entrance 33 in Stratford.

Both Amann and Perez said their concerns were twofold. For one, they said, the plan would hurt local businesses by creating alternative routes, so drivers could avoid Main Street in Stratford and part of U.S. 1/Bridgeport Avenue in Milford. Second, construction could possibly disrupt Raymark waste from the groundwater.

According to the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT), a new I-95 southbound off-ramp would end by the Longbrook Avenue/Ferry Boulevard connector at Veterans Boulevard, and a new northbound on-ramp would be near the Ferry Boulevard/northbound U.S. Route 1 intersection.

Supporters of the expanded interchange, including Harkins and CTDOT, say the new ramps would provide relief for drivers exiting I-95, improve traffic congestion and provide direct access to shopping centers in town.

Because Milford is separated from Stratford by only the Washington Bridge, Amann and Perez said they hope this effort will be a collaborative one, rather than “pitting one town against another.”

Views against

For the Milford side, Amann said the primary concern is that the drivers on the east side of Stratford who want to get onto I-95 northbound now take the Washington Bridge/Route 1 into Milford and pass a host of local businesses along the way. Having the option to get on I-95 northbound in Stratford allows those drivers to skip over the Milford businesses.

Amann said the way the local traffic is now is critical to maintaining visibility and encouraging patronage for those businesses.

Amann also noted that Milford Mayor Benjamin Blake has contacted the CTDOT through a public letter asking for an economic impact study of the area. In the mayor’s letter, he pointed out that the proposed ramp “will bypass a number of small and medium sized businesses on Bridgeport Ave. in Milford — many of which rely upon through traffic customers to remain economically viable.”

As far as Stratford businesses are concerned, Perez argued that if a southbound exit ramp were built at the very beginning of Stratford, where Home Depot and Wal-Mart are, businesses in Stratford Center that currently benefit from drivers using Exit 32 at West Broad would lose that traffic passing by and lose business as a result.

Perez said the big-box stores do not need the traffic passing by to support their businesses. “People know where those stores are,” he said. The impact would be similar to Devon, he said, and would result in loss of visibility and patronage by eliminating the long pass through the center of town.

A Stratford resident at the meeting said, “Wal-Mart and Home Depot are the ones really benefiting — taking business away from hardworking people in Stratford and Milford.”

DOT’s view

When asked about the reduction in traffic to the area, traffic engineer Steven Scalici, from STV Inc., said the decline of traffic in the area would actually help drivers gain access to the stores and would “free up roadway space for local traffic that really desires to access Devon and the [West Broad area] of Stratford. So Devon shoppers should experience fewer delays and be able to access the shopping destinations they are going to without through traffic slowing them down.”

Harkins’ views

Stratford’s mayor is on record with his contention that the expanded I-95 interchange 33 would lead to increased commerce and business expansion/location opportunities; reinvigoration of Stratford’s Route 1 corridor; further development of Ferry Boulevard/Stratford Avenue and the transit-oriented district; relieved traffic congestion in Stratford Center and at I-95 Exit 32; and easier access to major development opportunities, such as the Stratford Army Engine Plant site.

When asked about the opposition to the project, and specifically to Milford Mayor Benjamin Blake’s call for an economic impact study of the area from the CTDOT, Harkins said, “The addition of a full interchange at Exit 33 off of I-95 will provide a boost to not only Stratford’s local economy, but to the region. The project has widespread support from my office, multiple town councils over the years, and the Stratford Chamber of Commerce. I think it’s best for everyone if Milford focuses on Milford, rather than try to impede on our progress reviving our local economy here in Stratford and the region.”

Amann’s view

Amann, a lobbyist and managing partner at International Governmental Strategies, said he has business, political and personal interest in the Devon area, pointing out that his father-in-law has owned property there for years and saw firsthand the “devastating impact” traffic diversion had to the area when the Washington Bridge was shut down for repairs in the early 90s. He said he is “shocked the project has come about again” and worries that, just as businesses are coming back to the area following a years-long revitalization effort, the Exit 33 project would stifle economic growth by eliminating the pass-through in Devon, adding that this is a “Milford and Stratford problem.”

Raymark waste

No stranger to the controversy surrounding any town project involving Raymark waste and possible re-contamination, Perez spoke about SAFE’s decade-long opposition to the project that Stratford Mayor Harkins is actively supporting. Perez said that in 2005, CTDOT proposed a project similar to the one it outlined this past June at a public meeting in Stratford.

His main concern is that both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection have no current or concrete plan to mitigate a potential disruption in the groundwater contamination. Volatile organic compounds are still present underground in the area surrounding the proposed exit site, according to the EPA and Connecticut DEEP.

Referring to the CTDOT’s summer informational session and Q&A, Perez reminded residents that the representatives said they were still “working on a possible remedy” to prevent any potential exposure.

History and next steps

According to Perez, with the help of Amann and late state Sens. George “Doc” Gunther and Larry Miller, as well as Connecticut Sierra Club highway representative Molly McKay and the Northern Corridor Initiative’s Jim RePass, SAFE members collected and presented more than 2,000 signatures at the project meeting in Hartford in 2005, voicing their strong opposition to what they said was a flawed plan. The CTDOT confirmed at the June 2014 meeting that the project was put on hold in 2006 following “lack on consensus.”

Now, with the re-emergence of the proposed exit plan nine years later, SAFE members said they were hoping to inform residents about the potential impact the project could have on both Stratford and Milford.

Amann and Perez said they would be holding a press conference in the coming weeks to rally support and explain to the public why Exit 33 could hurt small businesses in both Milford and Stratford and detail the potential hazards of Raymark waste in the area.