Environmentalists and local business leaders met Thursday at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and the occasion was marked not by contention, but by agreement.

A panel of business and political leaders convened with community members to consider an issue that affects both camps: traffic congestion along the coastal corridor. Panelists offered their perspectives on the causes, consequences and potential solutions to the chronic traffic problems on Interstate 95 to about 60 community members. In contrast to the usual conflict between environmentalists and business, speakers described the two groups working together to achieve the mutually beneficial goal of reduced traffic congestion.

The panel members included Christopher Bruhl, president and CEO of SACIA, the business council of southwestern Connecticut, Michael Critelli, chairman and CEO of Pitney Bowes, Diana Lenkowsky, vice president of Purdue Pharma, and Emil Frankel, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Transportation.

Speakers agreed that the causes of congestion are many. Describing factors contributing to the problem of congestion, Frankel cited the age of the highway system, which was built in the 1950s, and the age of the rail line between New York and New Haven, which is over 100 years old.

Critelli said the slight increase in the population of Connecticut has not been the cause of greatly increased highway traffic. Rather, the prevalence of multi-vehicle families and decentralized suburban development have increased both the number of cars on the road and the distance those cars travel.

“The biggest issue is the number of vehicle miles traveled,” Critelli said.

Bruhl noted that the number of women in the work force has doubled since the 1970s, contributing largely to heavier commuter traffic. He also cited Connecticut’s reliance on market forces over urban planning to determine the direction of development. This trend produced the metropolitan sprawl that forces drivers to travel longer distances on the highways.

Predictably, regional traffic congestion has adversely affected the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency statistics from 1999 show that 45 percent of the greenhouse gases in Connecticut were produced by transportation compared to a 26 percent national average, Critelli said.

The consequences for local businesses have been negative as well. In addition to slowed shipping, employees of local businesses are often frustrated by tedious commutes and instead seek jobs that take them away from the high traffic coastal region.

“We’re losing people to other parts of the state,” Critelli said. He speculated that if traffic problems do not improve, Pitney Bowes will be forced to move out of Fairfield County.

As the state Department of Transportation is considering a proposal to expand the segment of I-95 along the waterfront in New Haven, Critelli said the solution cannot be found in continual expansion. Building bigger roads attracts more traffic and allows commuters to live further away from urban centers, thereby increasing the number of miles traveled, he said.

Critelli and Bruhl both emphasized that planning to reduce the demand on the highway, via carpool, train service or some other means, is the only feasible solution to the region’s traffic nightmares.

Yesterday’s discussion was the first in a semester-long series titled, “The Business of Sustainable Transportation,” that is sponsored by the Yale Industrial Environment Management Program.