A $102 million referendum to upgrade the Danbury area’s wastewater treatment plant has flown largely under the radar in the run up to Tuesday’s election, unlike a similar $48 million ballot question in Ridgefield.
On Election Day, voters in both cities will decide the fate of the projects designed to improve each system to meet new environmental guidelines just in time to qualify for millions of dollars in state funding for each project.
But debate about the even larger Danbury proposal — which also serves Bethel, Brookfield, Newtown and Ridgefield —has been conspicuously absent since City Council members approved asking voters in August“I don’t tend to go out and try to sell these things,” Mayor Mark Boughton said last week. “It’s up to voters and I think between the newspaper and the meetings I’ve been at, they seem to understand the issue and how we’re tied to this, even if they disagree with the project.
“If there had been more questions or concerns, we could have put some more of these resources out there for people for sooner, but I think they get it,” he said. “We’ll see how the vote goes and go from there.”
Boughton and Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi will eagerly await the results of the referendums next week amid the slate other hotly contested races up and down the ballot.
If either city’s referendum is denied, officials will have to scramble to find a way to fund their projects anyway to meet strict design and construction deadlines put in place by state environmental leaders.
Both projects spawned from a decision in 2008, when the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection increased its standards for water treatment and plants’ discharge into area waterways.
Cities resisted the change at the time and Danbury spent years battling the order in court, but environmental regulators ultimately won and the upgrades are to be completed by 2022.
Ridgefield plans to combine the town’s two wastewater treatment facilities into one upgraded plant to meet the guidelines.
The Danbury plant has not been upgraded in 25 years and needs major equipment changes to meet the new standards at its discharge point in the Still River.
That leaves both cities in a “crunch time” to gain voters’ approval this fall so they can enter a construction contract by July 1 to qualify for matching funds from the state, public works officials have said.
In Ridgefield, officials expect state grants cover about $11.5 million of the project. Increased sewer rates for customers and $8 million from the general taxpayers will make up the remaining $37.5 million.
Ridgefield residents and GOP leaders critical of the plan argue that is too much to ask non-sewer-users to pay for the project.
But the opposite is the case for taxpayers in Danbury, where big questions remain about how much the state will cover in grants and therefore how much sewer users might see their bill increases to fund the project.
Only the city’s almost 9,700 city sewer customers will absorb much of the project costs, even though any of the city’s almost 40,000 registered voters will have a say on the ballot question.
Customers in Bethel, Brookfield, Newtown and Ridgefield also served by the system will pay about 20 percent of the final cost on their bills.Despite the uncertainty, though, there has been no public opposition to the proposal — much to the excitement of Lake Lillinonah residents.
The Still River carries water discharged from the Danbury plant down to the lake, which has spent decades trying to reduce pollutants in the water and combat algae, said Bryan Piepho, second vice chairman of the lake authority. “We’re just trying to get the average person to realize they have a responsibility for their city and the water quality they discharge,” he said. “It might not necessarily affect them directly, but it is their responsibility as part of being a good neighbor.”
DOT Announces Final Rule to Accelerate Project Delivery
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced a final rule Oct. 31, to amend Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that will accelerate project delivery. To date, the new rule is one of the department's most expansive regulatory realignments of federal environmental transportation policy.
"As directed by Congress, this much-needed rule will accelerate the delivery of new railroad, transit and highway projects by rationalizing and streamlining the environmental review process across all three modes," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao.
The new rule implements changes made by Congress in the "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21)" and the "Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST)" Acts.
By modifying 23 CFR 771 and 774 to specifically include the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the new rule allows the FRA to follow the same flexible environmental procedures as FHWA and FTA, which will eliminate confusion and increase efficiency.
The rule also helps FHWA and FTA further implement the statutory changes in 23 USC 139 and formalizes all three agencies' roles by maintaining consistency in America's surface transportation policy across multiple federal agencies.
The new rule also reiterates states' ability to produce a single environmental document and combine the Final Environmental Impact Statement with the Record of Decision document. The rule further provides for greater flexibility on projects that take place entirely within the operational right-of-way.
The new rule will take effect on Nov. 28, 2018, 30 days after being published in the Federal Register. It can be viewed online at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/10/29/2018-23286/environmental-impacts-and-related-procedures.