Editor's note: This story has been updated from the original to reflect that the MRPA is recommending $800,000 in federal transportation enhancement funds for the walking trail.
Middletown has won the support of a local planning agency for $800,000 in grants to build a new walking trail from Wesleyan Hills to the downtown, beating out several small towns in the region that had also vied for the funding to extend the Airline Trail from East Hampton to Portland.
On Dec. 21, 2011, the city Common Council approved $200,000 in required matching funds.
The Midstate Regional Planning Agency voted 7-5 on Tuesday to support the Middletown project, after hearing strong arguments from both Mayor Daniel Drew and representatives of East Hampton, Portland and East Haddam for why the funding should be used on the Airline Trail instead.
The planning agency’s vote was needed so that the state’s Department of Transportation, which oversees the grant program, can decide which program to fund. In all, the regional planning board received three applications for the $1 million. Besides the Middletown and Airline Trail proposals, East Haddam had also applied for the funding to install sidewalks and improve street lighting in Moodus Center in order to connect the village’s growing commercial center with municipal buildings there, including a senior center, senior housing, post office and schools.
East Haddam officials, however, agreed Tuesday during the planning agency’s meeting to withdraw their proposal from consideration, saying they wanted to lend their support instead to the Airline Trail application.
Melissa Ziobron, a former planning official from East Haddam who serves on the regional board, said that too often small towns such as East Hampton and Portland get overlooked for such grants in favor of bigger communities like Middletown.
“I’ve been here a long time and all the big projects go to Middletown,” Ziobron said. “The airline trail has just been of such huge regional significance. (This) is probably one of the best regional projects we’ve seen.”
She also said she was troubled that the Wesleyan Hills Association walking trail would not connect to private trails maintained by and that the college was not making its trails public as part of the project. She also said that while Wesleyan recently made a grant of $800,000 to an overseas organization, the wealthy private school was not providing any funding for the trail project.
“It troubles me to give taxpayer money to a private university when they are not even a partner in that project.”
Others questioned a portion of the Wesleyan trails application that noted that residents of the Wesleyan Hills area are some of the most affluent and well educated in the city, saying that assertion smacked of elitism.
Drew, a member of the regional agency who lives in Wesleyan Hills, said the walking trail would not solely benefit the denizens of Wesleyan Hills or those who work at the college. Instead, he said, the trail would run past public schools and housing projects and would benefit a wide range of people who could use it to better access the downtown. The trail, he said, would also connect to other public trail systems in the area, ones that run all the way to the towns of Durham and Middlefield.
“So along this trail you have a variety of socio-economic profiles.”
He also said the Middletown project was the only one of the three applications that perfectly fits the DOT’s application requirement to provide alternative means of transportation that get people to work and connect them to regional transportation centers.
“It’s the only application that connects a lot of people to the downtown and 10,000 jobs. It creates a major artery for increased modes of transportation. It creates an opportunity for people to walk or bicycle to work. Our main intent is to connect thousands of people to their jobs every day by alternate means of transportation.”
The airline trail plan, he said, while also a worthy project, is intended largely for recreational purposes.
Under the plan, submitted by the town of Portland, the Airline Trail would be extended nearly three miles from East Hampton to a point near the intersections of routes 17 and 66 in Portland.
“This Airline Trail, which we’ve been trying to develop for over 20 years now … is very important to the region, it’s not just something that Portland residents will utilize,” said Susan Bransfield, Portland’s first selectwoman.
Ziobron said she supported the Airline Trail application because Middletown has greater access to funds than smaller towns and would likely undertake the Wesleyan Hills project without the grant. On the other hand, the Airline Trail extension will likely never get done without grant funding.
“We’re asking you to look at the small town first tonight. With all due respect, small towns struggle. Middletown has millions of dollars of money bonded right now. There’s money available.”
In the end, representatives from Middletown and other large communities backed the city’s proposal, while those from smaller towns voted for the Airline Trail.