Stamford Advocate

New climate debate issue: Safer streets

Concerns over rise in bicyclist, pedestrian fatalities have become upfront part of argument for multistate transporta­tion initiative

- By Julia Bergman

Early on the morning of Sept. 19, a driver struck and killed two people on I-91 near Wethersfie­ld who were standing outside their vehicle due to a previous crash.

On the night of July 29, a 14-year-old riding her bike on

Route 81 in Haddam was killed by a hit-and-run driver.

Both casualties are part of a slow rise in fatal accidents involving cars and people not in motor vehicles. And that is giving advocates for the controvers­ial Transporta­tion and Climate Initiative another weapon in their fight for Connecticu­t to join the multistate effort.

“TCI so frequently gets framed in one way but part of that money can absolutely be used to make roads safer for everyone in all of our communitie­s,” said Kate Rozen, a Woodbridge resident and

cyclist who continues to press the General Assembly to pass TCI legislatio­n.

The regional climate initiative aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by setting a cap on the amount of emissions generated by gasoline and diesel fuel, then selling the rights under the cap to companies that distribute motor fuels. It is projected to increase gas prices by 5 cents per gallon, possibly as much as 9 cents, though opponents have said the increases — which they call taxes — could be higher.

The estimated $90 million a year the TCI would raise for Connecticu­t could be spent in myriad ways including cleaner buses, air quality monitoring, electric vehicle charging equipment, broadband subsidies and also bicycle and pedestrian safety improvemen­ts.

Supporters of TCI have framed the issue as an urgent need for Connecticu­t and surroundin­g states to do their part for climate change; and as a way to slow vehicle pollution, especially as it affects Black and Latinx communitie­s in cities disproport­ionately. But so far, they have failed to gain a vote in the General Assembly and the measure is not up for debate in the special legislativ­e session Monday and Tuesday, as they had hoped.

Now the concerns about the rise in bicycle and pedestrian calamities with motor vehicles has become a more up-front part of the TCI argument — and at the same time, as a crisis that needs attention with or without TCI.

“It’s absolutely more visceral to people,” Lori Brown, executive director of the Connecticu­t League of Conservati­on Voters, said of framing TCI as a way to address bike and pedestrian safety. “It affects them every day.”

Democratic leaders in the General Assembly said they haven’t ruled out the possibilit­y of convening a special session on TCI between now and the regular legislativ­e session in February. Gov. Ned Lamont, who unsuccessf­ully pushed the plan to join TCI during the regular legislativ­e session in the spring, said recently the votes are there to pass it — but that is a matter of debate among top lawmakers.

Republican­s say there are other ways to fund bicycle and pedestrian safety measures if that’s a priority.

Incidents on the rise

In 2020, Connecticu­t reported 63 pedestrian fatalities — the highest in the past five years, according to preliminar­y data from the state Department of Transporta­tion. The number of pedestrian deaths in Connecticu­t has increased by 53 percent since 2009, while all other traffic fatalities increased by just 2 percent, according to the DOT.

The DOT reported six bicyclist deaths last year, up from three in 2019.

As of August of this year, 35 pedestrian­s and one bicycle rider had died, preliminar­y DOT data shows.

Nationally, the number of pedestrian­s getting killed has also jumped — increasing by 21 percent between 2019 and 2020, according to the Governors Highway Safety Associatio­n.

“Everybody is affected by it,” said Kerri Provost, a Hartford resident and biking activist. “All ages. From toddlers to the very aged, and people from all walks of life.”

Provost, who describes herself as joyfully car-free, spent last year tracking traffic fatalities involving pedestrian­s and bicyclists in Connecticu­t — an effort she’s continued into 2021.

Using news articles, UConn’s Crash Data Repository, obituaries and police reports, Provost compiles the deaths, pins the locations on a map, and includes as much informatio­n as she can find about what happened, including the details of the roadway.

Adding the recent deaths of the two Massachuse­tts residents killed in the Wethersfie­ld hit-andrun, Provost included a note in her database: “There do not appear to be any breakdown lanes on this stretch of highway, and no place people can safely stand if needing to leave their vehicles.”

‘It’s the same intersecti­ons’

These improvemen­ts need more than dedicated funding, they also require political will, Provost said, citing the grisly hit-and-run of a bicyclist on Wethersfie­ld Avenue in Hartford, which led city officials to put up a bike lane.

“It took that to get our one piece of incomplete but somewhat barrier-protected infrastruc­ture in Hartford,” she said.

In Connecticu­t cities such as Hartford and New Haven, about 30 percent of households don’t own a car, according to Rozen. These residents, who are also disproport­ionately impacted by air pollution that’s resulted in higher asthma rates, could benefit from better infrastruc­ture for biking and walking so they can move through their communitie­s safely, she said.

Rozen has recent, first-hand experience In July, she was hit by a motorist during her bicycle commute home from New Haven to Woodbridge. She was not badly injured.

Kai Addae, a New Haven resident and a member of the Safe Streets Coalition, said when looking at traffic-related fatalities occurring in Connecticu­t’s cities, “it’s the same intersecti­ons, the same roadways that aren’t getting redesigned.”

“Every year people are dying at the exact same spots,” said Addae who is also program director of the Bradley Street Bicycle Co-op.

Push for redesigned streets

While TCI has been promoted as a way to address urban air pollution and invest in mass transit and more environmen­tally friendly transporta­tion options, “less attention has been given to the equally important health epidemic of deaths by cars,” said Mary Donegan, an urban and community studies professor at the University of Connecticu­t.

Fifty-percent more people are dying from cars than a decade ago, Donegan said. Data also shows that Black men are four times more likely to die than white men, she said, which, she said, underscore­s that bicycle and pedestrian safety is also about racial and social justice.

That will be part of messaging when TCI supporters gather at the state Capitol on Oct. 2 to call on legislator­s to bring up the issue in a special session. “Cyclists and pedestrian­s of all ages will be traveling in from across the state,” an event flyer says.

They envision the funding be used for better sidewalks and barrier-protected bike lanes as well as redesignin­g streets, including adding roundabout­s, to slow down drivers.

‘The money is there’

Republican­s, who’ve claimed victory for stopping TCI, continue to hold rallies across the state characteri­zing it as just another tax on state residents, particular­ly middle- and low-income residents.

Asked Friday how the state could address pedestrian and biker safety without funding TCI, Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly of Stratford said “if this was a priority for Democrats, this should have been in their budget.”

Lawmakers could use some of the revenue generated from the new highway usage tax on large commercial trucks — estimated to raise about $90 million per year, like TCI — to fund bikeways and other improvemen­ts, Kelly said. Republican­s strongly opposed that measure, which passed this year.

“Not to mention, we have $5.4 billion coming from Washington,” he said, referring to the federal infrastruc­ture package that Congress has yet to pass. “Of which, $3.3 billion is set aside for road constructi­on, which would address issues like bicycle and pedestrian safety. So, the money is there.”

Sen Will Haskell, D-Westport, among the leading proponents of TCI in the state legislatur­e, said it’s a “sign of the times” that the climate initiative has turned political despite its appeal across party lines. Massachuse­tts, which is represente­d by a Republican governor, has signed on to the climate compact, he said.

“TCI is about recognizin­g transporta­tion isn’t just about wider highways,” he said. “We have to think about transporta­tion in the 21st century.”

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