Questions Raised at Amazon Public Hearing in Branford
Answers to questions raised about the proposed Amazon "last mile" delivery center on Commercial Parkway are anticipated to be addressed by the applicant on Thursday, March 3, when Branford's Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC) continues its public hearing on the applications as part of the regular PZC meeting. The PZC will hold its March 3 meeting virtually, via remote technology, beginning at 7 p.m. Participants will be able to join by calling in or accessing the online meeting platform.
As noted by PZC chair Chuck Andres, Feb. 17 was the first time many were learning that the proposed Amazon van delivery facility would also use Amazon Flex delivery providers, who use personal vehicles to deliver items from the delivery center to a customer's doorstep, using a smartphone app-based system akin to Google Lyft.
The Feb. 17 meeting also included a first review of Amazon's area traffic study, and a peer review of that study conducted by a traffic engineer hired by the Town (see "Traffic Study Discussion" below).
On Feb. 17, the PZC also heard six public comments, including a letter read into record from the chair of Branford Economic Development Commission (EDC) noting the EDC was fully in favor of the project and its benefits. Citizens speaking on Feb. 17 raised concerns about traffic, community and environmental impacts, as well as future issues not being considered. One citizen asked whether Amazon will have plans for the Branford site to receive airline cargo freight shipments via Tweed-New Haven airport in the future. See "Public Comments" below to learn more on citizens' input received by the PZC on Feb. 17.
On Feb. 17, attorney John Knuff (Milford), on behalf of contract purchaser FSI Acquisitions LLC, introduced the team involved in the 3-part application involving the combined 21.5 acre site at 49 and 81-111 Commercial Parkway. Knuff said the property's location in a designated local business hybrid rear zone makes it specifically targeted to the ecommerce use being requested. He said the property, which has been vacant for decades, can be made productive by bringing in the Amazon facility, which will significantly contribute to the Grand List, provide important employment opportunities, support local businesses through employee interactions such as meal and gasoline purchases, and create a "dramatic improvement" from an environmental perspective through parcel upgrades improving storm water runoff and reducing impervious surfaces.
According to site plans on file with the town, Amazon is seeking to build an approximate 97,950 square foot building with an additional 6,800 square foot mezzanine with 9 loading docks; for a total of 104,837 square feet of building space. Amazon would require 213 employee parking spaces on site as well as 539 company fleet (delivery van) spaces.
A Day in the Life of a Delivery Station
Eric Daniel, Senior Program Manager of Real Estate for Amazon, described day-to-day operations of the delivery center and how those operations drive the overall design of the project. While designated a 24-hour-a-day, 7-days-a-week operation, Daniel said there are periods when the site goes quiet.
A typical day would begin with tractor trailers predominantly arriving in the "overnight" hours, said Daniel, with usually no more than 1 or 2 trucks per hour coming in to pull up to loading berths. Amazon associates begin to arrive in overnight hours as well and park on site. The associates, all Amazon employees, enter the building to unload tractors trailers and set up for morning delivery by van routes. Daniel noted full-time employees will have a starting average wage of $18 per hour and comprehensive benefits.
Van drivers typically arrive in three waves during morning hours via personal vehicles, rideshare or public transport to begin delivery routes using the Amazon vans parked on the property. Amazon owns the vans and leases them to Delivery Service Partners (DSP); third-party, small and medium sized businesses contracted by Amazon. Upon arriving, van drivers move their van to the center's loading site for a 20-to-30-minute loading period. While the first wave of vans are being loaded, the second wave of drivers arrives and pick up vans to be loaded next. Once the first wave exits, the second wave is loaded and departs. Typically, three waves of vans are loaded and depart from the facility each morning. To mitigate impact on rush hour traffic, the waves of vans depart between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., said Daniel. The vans go out on area routes which last between 8 to 10 hours before returning to the site. In answer to a question raised Feb. 17 regarding delivery area, Daniel said the Branford Amazon facility is anticipated to provide center-to-door delivery in areas including Branford, North Branford, East Haven and Guilford.
Once the vans exit the site in the morning, "the site goes quiet for the afternoon," said Daniel, until 4 - 5:30 p.m., when drivers with the Amazon Flex program arrive to pick up items from the delivery station to drop off at customer locations. Amazon Flex drivers use personal vehicles and make deliveries based on requests received via an app on a driver's smartphone, similar to Google Lyft, said Daniel.
Once the Flex drivers have dispersed, the site goes quiet from about 5:30 p.m. until delivery vans begin returning, at about 7 p.m. Vans undergo a safety check and are returned to the van parking areas. Van drivers leave in personal vehicles or other transport. Once all vans return, by about 9 p.m., the site will go quiet until about 10 p.m.; when tractor trailers begin to arrive and the process starts over again.
A Commitment to Sustainability
Daniel also discussed Amazon's commitment to sustainability, which includes corporate goals of net-zero carbon by 2040 with 50 percent of all shipments net-zero carbon by 2030; a Climate Pledge Fund committed to decarbonizing technology; operations powered with 100 percent renewable energy by 2025; a commitment to have 100,000 electric vehicles by 2030; $100 million committed to reforestation projects and climate mitigation solutions through Amazon's Right Now Climate Fund; and Amazons record of becoming the world's largest purchaser of renewable energy in 2020.
PZC member Sharon Huttner noted that, while she was happy to hear Amazon's corporate sustainability goals in the presentation, she didn't see many specifics in the Branford plans, especially with regard to electric vehicles (EV) and solar at the site.
Daniel said conduit and pole boxes will be installed in the delivery van parking lot, but the site will not be putting EV charges in just yet; although the site will be "EV ready." Due to there being no large-scale manufacturers in North America, the company Amazon has partnered with to create supply is production now.
"The site will be set up to put those charges in as soon as they are available," said Daniel.
With regard to installing solar at the Branford site, with about 1,000 buildings currently in Amazon's portfolio, many of which have come on the last 18 or 20 months, "teams are looking at buildings in the portfolio" regarding solar, and currently evaluating each one, said Daniels, adding that's "a bit of a process."
Traffic Study Discussion
The Town hired traffic engineer Stephen Ulman of Alfred Benesch & Company to provide a peer review of the traffic study provided by the applicant, prepared for Amazon by traffic engineer Rob Baltramaitis.
The area studied stretches from east to west along the Route 1 corridor including intersections from Short Beach Road to Cedar Street, the I-95 Exit 53 intersection with West Main Street and two intersections of 1-95 Exit 54 (Cedar Street) ramps. It also took into consideration road changes underway on Route 1 as part of the current Aldi's development at 1151 West Main St./Route 1. The Aldi's improvements will add a right turn lane northbound on Route 1 for vehicles turning into the Aldi's site northbound; and an extension of an existing Route 1/West Main St. southbound left turn lane for traffic turning into the Aldi's site.
Due to COVID, traffic counts were based on 2017 manual counts from the Branford Connector Corridor Study, with a growth factor applied to raise counts to existing conditions. Those numbers were also submitted to the CT Dept. of Transportation (DOT) and received approval that they reflect current conditions. The study also included the addition of added traffic to be created by the Aldi site as well that generated the new Vox Church on Commerical Parkway. Finally, while such studies also generally incorporate new site generated trips based on the most recent edition of Institute of Transporation Engineers (ITE) compilation of studies, there are currently no ITE codes for ecommerce. As the closest ITE estimate matching a 90,000 square foot facility is for transload short-term storage and reflects only 8, 10 and 12 total trips weekdays and Saturdays, Baltramaitis said,"...in this case it is very prudent to use the information provided by the tenant to estimate our site traffic," with that information also reviewed by the peer reviewer. Numbers provided by the applicant cite traffic generated by employees and others using similar Amazon sites.
With that, Amazon's team is estimating adding between 8 to 12 trips in morning hours, 83 trips in the afternoon peak hours and 109 additional trips on a Saturday midday, with that impact anticipated to include the area north to Route 1's intersection at Main Street.
Amazon's traffic study also notes the applicant will work with the Office of State Traffic Administration (OTSA) for review and possible adjustment of the timing of traffic lights in the area, as well working with CT DOT on plans to widen a portion of Route 1 on West Main Street to create an exclusive southbound right turn lane into Commercial Parkway. The Amazon plan also calls for clearing of vegetation along the site on Commercial Parkway to improve sightlines, and installing painted white "stop bars" and Stop signs at the site driveways egresses.
In his peer review, Ulman said he felt an in-depth description of how the applicant obtained and generated trip numbers should be provided to the PZC; and that he needed updated information to validate 2020 traffic volumes provided. Ulman also strongly suggested Amazon "make an effort to vocalize" with OTSA a recommendation to review and adjust signal timings on Route 1 and Cedar Street and the vicinity of their site.
Most notably, Ulman said that while Amazon's proposal of adding a right turn lane southbound along Route One/West Main Street onto Commercial Parkway will improve the level of service at the intersection for Commercial Parkway and Route 1; he had, "...very serious safety concerns with the impact to the Starbuck's right turn exit onto Route 1."
The Starbucks traffic currently enters into the right-most lane westbound on Route 1/West Main Street, which continues past the Commercial Parkway intersection and becomes a right turn-only lane onto the I-95 Exit 53 connector.
"If they want to go points west on Route 1, they have to do a lane shift after entering Route 1 out of that right lane," from Starbucks, said Ulman. "If this [Amazon] right turn lane is constructed, people are now in the right turn lane, and if they don't move, they're going to end up on Commercial Parkway. They must move one lane over to get in the connector lane, and make two lane changes to get on to Route 1 westbound. I believe this poses a significant safety risk for people exiting Starbucks... I don't believe the improvement of level of service at the intersection warrants the safety issues that are raised with this driveway."
PZC chairman Chuck Andres noted the area also includes four traffic lights within a quarter mile; and particularly noted the study's showing existing degraded traffic issues at the intersection of Route 1 and Short Beach Road. He asked if there was anything that could be suggested to lessen any impact. He also asked the applicant to get back to the PZC with the season in which the traffic generation numbers (2017) were recorded.
Resident Margaret Wheeler asked the PZC not to vote until the public has a chance to review the traffic report. Also, with this being the first ecommerce facility in Branford, she said time is needed to create any ordinances, regulations and potential penalties to ensure the applicant adheres to what is being presented. Wheeler also gave examples of other commissions which had set parameters, restrictions and other guidelines for Amazon facilities to protect those living in the surrounding areas and the community. She felt more attention was needed toward regulating air, water and other environmental issues which could be impacted by plans presented by Amazon now and through any future actions. She questioned the amount of emissions created by Flex drivers in personal vehicles, also noting such vehicle use didn't jibe with Amazon corporate's proposed transition to fully electric vehicles for its fleet by 2040.
Wheeler also had particular concerns as to whether this location will be tied to what she said are Amazon's plans for upscaling its corporate cargo air freight, asking the PZC to make sure the Branford site "does not have a direct connection to Tweed," which would not only create an impact in noise and flight path changes but also with additional freight roadway traffic traveling to and from the East Haven airport to Branford.
Resident Dan Rabin had sustainability questions regarding the facility. In addition to asking why solar equipment isn't being included on site, he said the HVAC system, if it's gas, will be emitting carbon dioxide. Instead, Rabin suggested the building be fitted with either air-source or geothermal heat pumps that will also ultimately save the company money.
Resident Kate Galambos said traffic conditions in the area of Exit 54/Cedar Street are already a problem and will likely degrade further because of the number of vehicles using that area to reach the Amazon facility. She suggested a 24-hour traffic impact study because, although the Amazon traffic study states most traffic will occur outside of peak hours, the facility is also described as a "24/7" operation. She also asked how many Flex vehicles will be a part of the facility use, and if that number has been added to trip generations in the traffic study.
Another resident, Quintin Cann, described regularly experiencing traffic back-ups created around the Amazon facility in North Haven (although, as pointed out earlier by the Amazon team, the Branford delivery center is a tenth of the size of the North Haven facility, which is a warehouse facility). Resident Jeff Clark emphasized that sidewalks at the delivery center and in the area of Commercial Parkway, which also includes a commuter parking area and bus stop, should be a strong consideration in this plan and would be in character with requirements made of other commercial establishments, as well as the guidance in the Town's Plan of Conservation and Development. Clark also said he felt there was a "disconnect" in traffic generation numbers and the total number of parking spaces in the plan.
Those seeking to participate in the March 3, 7 p.m. PZC remote technology meeting can access the full agenda, together with instructions on how to view/participate, to be posted at least 24 hours prior to the meeting at the Town of Branford website www.branford-ct.gov