The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
Pedaling back roads with Himes and friends
The irony of Connecticut’s transportation headaches was lost on none of us who came from both directions along Interstate 95 to meet at Compo Beach in Westport at 8 a.m. Friday for a bike ride.
Yeah, traffic made most of us, including U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, the organizer, a few minutes late – for a ride designed to highlight Connecticut recreation heading into Labor Day weekend and the infrastructure bill wending through Congress.
The measure would send $5.5 billion to Connecticut on top of the billions we’re collecting in pandemic relief. There are two bills in fact, one that passed in the Senate and the other one that’s bigger and more controversial.
But this wasn’t the time to talk Washington, DC politics. It was a Top-10 day to wheel through the back roads of western Connecticut, an excuse to launch the holiday weekend early.
I joined for the first 14 miles, the mostly uphill roll to the Shaggy Coos Farm in Easton, which has a great 21st century story. The ride, from the Sound to the farms and upland country houses — naturally, with some other public officials — amounted to basically a postcard with rotating spokes.
“The whole point of the day here is to encourage people to get outside over the long weekend. You know, you can spend the day staring at a screen or you can be out on this gorgeous day,” Himes, D-4th District, told me at the farm, the first of a halfdozen stops he planned to make on an 85-mile jaunt.
Himes rides a couple of times a week. He’s in shape and he was less than worried about riding the narrow byways, some with no shoulder at all.
“There’s beautiful country roads that are actually pretty safe. I mean, look, cycling is more dangerous than sitting on your couch,” he said.
I pointed out that the couch route will buy you a heart attack in the end, so it’s not at all safe. He agreed. “I’ve got lights on front and back, we’re all wearing helmets.”
Without missing the cue, he added, “And this is where the policy piece comes in, we can get cars off the road because people are using more mass transit.” And that’s why broadband is part of the infrastructure deal. “This bill will wire up a lot of people,” he said.
State Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, did the ride on one of those new electric bicycles that use pedals and augment muscle-power with some battery-charged oomph. He rented it for the day, earning jabs as the youngest person in the group and the only one with a motor. But it’s a more viable mode of transit for commuters and Haskell, who sponsored a bill supporting those contraptions, wants to call attention to it as an option.
“The fun of it is seeing how many other people are out on the road, biking, walking,” said Haskell, who’s on Himes’ staff as an outreach coordinator. “When we think about transportation, we think about 4-lane highways and 2-lane roads but it’s about
much more than that. It’s about getting people from point A to point B that’s safe and efficient and ideally, zero carbon.”
He added, “We are lacking bike lanes, we are lacking sidewalks.”
An irony in Connecticut is that the landscape makes for great bicycling but the roads, and the culture of drivers, aren’t well set up for it. “The reality is, these roads have existed for 200, 300 years, so they’re pretty narrow. And we’ve done what we can,” said Westport First Selectman James Marpe, who saw the group off at Compo Beach, along with state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, who’s running for that seat.
I talked about the whole bike-friendly thing with Haskell and state Reps. Anne Hughes and Cristin McCarthy Vahey, Democrats from Easton and Fairfield, respectively, who rode under their own power. “Infrastructure, education and enforcement,” McCarthy Vahey said. “That’s why, when we pass laws
that give people three feet on the road, when we educate people…. it’s not just all about the vehicle.”
Cultural change takes time. “I did not get three feet of space along that ride,” Haskell said.
I spent most of my leg — with an ailing leg from a running injury — riding with Haskell and David
Lehman, the state economic and community development commissioner. Naturally, we talked about how Connecticut is faring, after I was curious about the the 8:30 a.m. U.S. jobs report and Lehman checked it without missing a rotation.
In this state, we’re coming into a fairly strong position, with some worries: inflation, whether the state’s urban investments will pay off in jobs, whether pandemic migration into the state will continue.
Speaking of infrastructure, Lehman and Haskell both believe we can have two functioning commercial airports on the shoreline, Tweed in New Haven and Sikorsky in Stratford.
All in all, a great way for policy wonks to start the weekend.
Irv Silverman showed up at Shaggy Coos from Silverman’s Farm down the road with a bag of peaches, in peak season, which is reason enough to get out there immediately. “My district is a peach!” Hughes declared.
Shaggy Coos, 15 acres of horses, milking cows, egglaying chickens and pigs, is run by Brittany Conover, who moved to Connecticut from Pennsylvania when her husband, Jamie, was hired to help the Silvermans manage that farm. She said they hope to buy the place eventually and she’s putting in crazy hours at the farm and as a fulltime lab supervisor at Fairfield University, putting her biology degree to work.
That is a great story about modern farming, with the 29-year-old Conover’s toils earning her a hearty nod for Labor Day.
And they were off for the next stop, in Newtown. Some insiders wondered whether Himes’ foray into another Congressional district means he’s running for U.S. Senate if a seat ever comes open. But that’s not happening anytime soon.
Himes shot a Facebook Live clip as the bikes lined up. Hey’ it’s still politics. “Most of us are feeling loose and stretched,” he said into the phone.