Calling the release of a Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) report on the redesign of I-95’s Exit 33 “underhanded” and a “despicable act of old school political cronyism,” former Conn. Speaker of the House James Amann, who represents the Devon/Stratford Merchants and Citizens Association, slammed the report as biased, questioned the methods used by the DOT in producing and releasing the report and called for a new report by an independent third party.
Amann said in a press release issued late last week that the DOT report, requested by Milford Mayor Benjamin Blake in response to concerns expressed by some Milford residents, should have been given first to Mayor Blake before being released to the public. Instead, according to Amann, a DOT employee sent a copy of the report prior to its official release to Stratford Mayor John Harkins, a vocal proponent of the project.
State officials are standing by the report, saying there may have been a miscommunication that led to it being given to Mayor Blake after it went to others, but that doesn’t compromise the validity of the report. Harkins has called Amann’s criticism of the way the report was released “absolute nonsense.”
The report, favorable to the redesign project, was discussed during a 12:30 p.m. press conference last Tuesday by Mayor Harkins, touting the benefits of the project. Amann said he learned of the release of the report at about noon when he was confronted by a local television reporter who had a copy of it, asking Amann if he had seen it. As late as just prior to Harkins’ 12:30 p.m. press conference, according to Amann, neither he, Mayor Blake, nor members of the Devon/Stratford Merchants and Citizens Association had been told about its release.
Amann said Blake didn’t get the report until 3 p.m. and was told by the DOT earlier in the day that it wasn’t available yet.
“This is just the kind of old school political games we’ve been trying to get rid of in Connecticut,” said Amann. “I am appalled and disgusted that a DOT staffer would leak this report to a mayor of a Connecticut city. The deception and underhandedness with which this report was leaked by the DOT to Mayor Harkins, a known proponent of the project – and the person who stands to gain most from the project’s completion – rather than being properly issued to Mayor Blake, the person who had requested the report, completely discredits this report.”
The DOT report states that adding two ramps at Exit 33 would not negatively impact businesses in Devon, which Amann contends would happen. The project calls for adding a northbound entrance and a southbound exit ramp at Exit 33 in Stratford, to make it a full interchange on I-95.
“In general, for all types of businesses in Devon, their business exposure to traffic on Bridgeport Avenue would not experience perceptible changes after the construction of the Interchange 33 project,” the DOT report states. “The potential impact on business patrons’ route choice and travel habit caused by the change of accessibility at Interchange 33 would be very limited. A significant diversion of business patrons away from Devon is not anticipated.”
Amann said he is calling for a thorough investigation into how the report “was leaked” and under whose orders and will request a new report be commissioned by an “unbiased, independent and qualified third party.”
Judd Everhart, DOT communications director, said it was a simple miscommunication between staff that resulted in Harkins getting the report before Blake got it.
“We did give the report to Mayor Harkins and [State Rep. Kim] Rose at their request, but there was a miscommunication here about who would get it to Mayor Blake of Milford and apparently he got it well after Harkins did,” Everhart said. “But there was nothing ‘underhanded’ about how it was handled – it was a simple miscommunication between staff here.”
Harkins has touted the Exit 33 changes as a key to revitalizing business in his community. The Stratford mayor has said the expanded I-95 Interchange 33 project would lead to increased commerce and business expansion along Stratford’s Route 1 corridor.
This week Harkins repeated his support of the project, saying it’s a matter of safety, commerce and convenience.
“We were cheated out of that full interchange years ago because of the tolls,” Harkins said, adding that a full interchange had been planned on I-95 years ago but the state didn’t want a way for people to exit before the toll booth.
“Our side has suffered for a long time,” he said.
People trying to drive to Stratford stores like Home Depot “don’t know how to get there” because there is no highway exit, Harkins added.
Kim Rose, state representative of the 118th district, which covers Devon, has also spoken in favor of the project. She said she conducted an informal survey of her Milford constituents and 80% of the respondents said they favor the Exit 33 changes in hopes of alleviating traffic congestion in Devon.
Rose said she didn’t know why Mayor Blake got his report later than others, but she doesn’t think problems with distribution have any impact on its credibility. “The report is what it is,” Rose said.
Harkins echoed that, saying he expected Amann to balk at the report but he was surprised the former speaker made an issue about who got it first.
Rose added that Amann simply is not happy with the report because it does not support his idea that the exit changes would negatively impact Devon businesses.