Speed cameras, taking land for bike paths part of transportation bill
Facing a spike in fatal crashes in Connecticut, the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee has raised a bill to improve safety and prevent deaths among pedestrians, cyclists, drivers and passengers.
The bill, based on the recommendations of the Vision Zero Council, has garnered widespread support and enthusiasm among groups calling for safer roads, but criticism from some about installing cameras to ticket drivers, allowing the state to take land for bike paths and requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets.
The Vision Zero Council was created by the Connecticut General Assembly to “develop a state-wide policy and interagency approach to eliminating all transportation-related fatalities and severe injuries to pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, motorists and passengers,” according to state Department of Transportation Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto.
Eucalitto said in written testimony during a public hearing Monday that 2022 was the “deadliest year on our roadways in decades,” with 239 driver or passenger deaths, an increase of 41.5% over the last 5 years, and 75 pedestrian deaths, an increase of 31% over the last 5 years.
The 17-page bill has a host of provisions, including banning motor vehicle passengers from having open alcoholic containers on highways and making municipalities adopt a Complete Streets plan for the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers, and people using wheelchairs.
It also directs the transportation commissioner to study whether or not to allow a cyclist to treat a stop sign as a yield sign and a red light as a stop sign, and to prohibit motor vehicle drivers from making a right turn on red.
The proposal also calls for people to watch a safe driving video when renewing their driver’s license or transferring their license to Connecticut, the development of a public awareness campaign about the dangers of driving under the influence of certain over-the-counter and prescription drugs, with an emphasis on opioids and cannabis, and consider recommended infrastructure improvements to protect pedestrians, cyclists and people with disabilities. It would also require helmets for all motorcycle riders.
The bill would revise the existing law allowing for the state to take land deemed necessary for a state highway, highway maintenance storage area or garage or land necessary for a bicycle lane or multi-use trail.
The proposal would also allow municipalities to use “automated traffic enforcement safety devices” in school zones, pedestrian zones or locations with a history of crashes, if approved by the Office of the State Traffic Administration. These are cameras that will issue tickets to drivers who violate traffic law such as speeding and running red lights.
A call for safety
State Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, senate chair of the Transportation Committee, said she is optimistic about the bill’s success as people have expressed widespread, bipartisan support for it. She said a couple of sections received some opposition, including eminent domain being called into question by some municipalities, concerns from the Connecticut Motorcycle Riders Association about the helmet law, and concerns over traffic cameras. She said there would be further discussions among legislators.
Brian Kent, president of Bike Groton, whose mission is to support bicyclists and pedestrians in Groton and the region, said the bill “is supported by a wide spectrum of constituencies because there is an undeniable crisis of declining road safety for all users.”
In written testimony, Jennifer Lacker, president of Bike Stonington, said Stonington ― including Mystic ― is especially in need of the Vision Zero recommendations as tourism brings nearly 1 million visitors a year to the small town by car. She said she and fellow cyclists feel unsafe on local roads.
“Greater protections and infrastructure are greatly needed and overdue,” she testified.
Samuel Gold, executive director of the Lower Connecticut River Council of Governments, said the overall purpose of the bill is improving safety for all users of the transportation system, whether they’re riders, bicyclists, pedestrians or drivers, but said some details still need to be worked out over the legislative session.
Gold said every municipality would ideally have a Complete Streets Plan, but from a pragmatic perspective, in some of the more rural areas it may be better to do this on a regional level. The Lower Connecticut River Council of Governments recently was awarded $240,000 under the bipartisan infrastructure law for a regional safety action plan.
State Rep. Aundré Bumgardner, D-Groton, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the recommendations represent “very broad and comprehensive but intentional proposals that will actually save lives.” Bumgardner, also a Groton Town Councilor, said he made the referral to enact a Complete Streets policy and Complete Streets advisory committee in Groton, and it’s important to support municipalities to establish these plans.
He called the uptick in people dying in motor vehicle crashes and pedestrian fatalities “very concerning.”
“Especially since Covid, driving is becoming far more aggressive, and it is really unsafe on our roads,” Bumgardner said. “In fact, we lost a colleague, a dear friend of mine, (State Rep.) Quentin Williams, from a wrong-way crash on the first day of the legislative session, so our own legislative family has been impacted by unsafe road conditions, and we need to tackle this once and for all.”
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said she supports parts of the bill, but parts still need work. She said in many cases, there are 3-foot-wide spaces on the sides of roads for bikes. While she doesn’t disagree with that, she said that if there were 3-foot spaces on the side of roads in rural areas, there would be no road left. She asked the state if there is a plan to expand the width on state roads, and the commissioner said there was no such plan.
Osten said lighting needs to be added near crosswalks so drivers are aware that a pedestrian is stepping into the crosswalk, which is particularly important at dusk or when it’s dark out. She also said that while helmets make it safer to ride a motorcycle, a lot of people don’t want to wear them, and she thinks it should be a personal choice.
State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, who serves on the Transportation Committee, said he supports the bill’s intent and most of its provisions, and overall it’s important to do whatever “we can to protect pedestrians and cyclists.“ He supports improving safety, from motor vehicle courses to ensuring crosswalks are as safe as possible, in the wake of the higher number of deaths on the state’s roadways.
But Carney said he’d like to see a couple of issues worked out before the committee takes action on the legislation. He supports the existing law banning drivers from having an open container, but he said the proposed rule for passengers doesn’t seem like it would improve safety at all and would penalize someone who is a designated driver for a passenger who has an open container.
Acquisition of land, cameras
Carney also said he would like to see language worked our regarding whether the state can take land for the purpose of widening a bike lane.
“I understand the reason behind widening bike lanes, but I’m just concerned about whether the state should be establishing eminent domain in order to do that, especially on more rural roads,” Carney said.
Eucalitto, the DOT commissioner, said two federal grants as well as 15 other projects are waiting the statutory change.
“This small clarification has big implications on the direction of the State to move towards alternative modes of transportation,” he wrote in his testimony.
The Yankee Institute President Carol Platt Liebau raised concerns about the cameras and the provision allowing the state to take land for bike paths.
“Yankee Institute shares the Vision Zero Council’s goal of eliminating transportation-related fatalities,” Platt Liebau said in a statement. “HB 5917, however, improperly expands the eminent domain authority under the discretion of the Department of Transportation commissioner. Furthermore, the proposed implementation of traffic surveillance cameras across Connecticut is unbecoming of a free society, unlikely to resolve related concerns, and may lead to inequitable enforcement.”
Eucalitto also wrote that while the DOT’s proposal is slightly different than the bill, “the fact remains that automated traffic enforcement devices, such as red light cameras and speed cameras have been proven to significantly reduce crashes and serious injuries, and ultimately save lives.”
In written testimony, residents shared their stories and concerns about unsafe roads.
Some said the cameras would lead to more equitable enforcement.
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities said in written testimony that the cameras “will provide another means to promote and enforce traffic safety beyond the traditional use of local police enforcement” as municipal budgets are being strained.
“It is cost prohibitive to place an officer on every street corner in order to make our roads safe, and it would divert limited law enforcement resources away from proactive community policing and crime,” Randy Collins, advocacy manager of CCM, said in the testimony.
Jess Zaccagnino, the ACLU of Connecticut’s policy counsel, said in a statement that pedestrian safety is a serious issue and everyone wants safe streets, but the state should “invest in actual solutions, like traffic calming and pedestrian-supportive infrastructure, instead of putting more money into racist, dangerous police surveillance.”
“We need to invest in walkable cities, not more policing,” Zaccagnino added. “Red light cameras represent an expansion of policing, which always comes at the expense of public safety, especially for people of color and undocumented people. It would be good if people had fewer interactions with police, but there is nothing in this bill to require places that use red light cameras to in turn reduce the number of police in their local or state police agency, reduce the budget of the police department and invest that money instead in real public safety and public health, or prevent police from making traffic or pedestrian stops, meaning police would be free to continue doing exactly what they do now, with the addition of even more surveillance tools at their disposal.”
He said he believes red light cameras can be a solution, but the legislature will need to vet the proposal and hear from constituents that will be directly impacted so that it does not have a disparate impact on Black and brown communities.