Town, BOE and county work together for new traffic light

WEST ORANGE, NJ — After years of advocacy by residents, the West Orange Board of Education and township officials, a traffic signal will finally be erected at the busy intersection where Pleasant Valley Way meets Alisa and Lakeview drives.

According to the agreement and resolution unanimously passed by the West Orange Township Council on May 23, Essex County will pay $350,000 to install signal, plus all maintenance costs. The township will in turn refund two-thirds of that installation price, with the BOE promising to pay half of that. Township engineer Leonard Lepore said the township and the board are currently working out an agreement formalizing their commitment to each pay for one-third of the cost.

Lepore said he expects the traffic light to be installed sometime in 2018, though the county is looking into whether it can be done this year. Whenever it happens, he said the light should be a major improvement to the intersection.

“It’s going to be much safer,” Lepore told the West Orange Chronicle in a June 5 phone interview. “People are going to feel more confident with the signal there when exiting Alisa Drive.”

News of the new signal should come as a relief to the many residents and officials who have long viewed the intersection as a safety hazard. Those advocates stressed that exiting Alisa Drive onto the major thoroughfare of Pleasant Valley Way was dangerous for the many people who use West Orange High School, Degnan Park and the Katz Community Center — especially WOHS students inexperienced at driving. And statistics do warrant those concerns, as West Orange Police Department records show there have been 10 crashes at that intersection since 2012 alone.

It is for that reason that the school community is especially excited to see the promise of erecting the traffic signal.

“I am thrilled that we will have a traffic light at Alisa Drive and Pleasant Valley Way,” Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky said in a press release sent to the Chronicle. “This is a very dangerous area, and the traffic light will provide greater safety for our students, staff, parents and visitors.”

But safety concerns were actually not the main impetus for the signal. Lepore said a study completed by resident traffic engineer Harold Maltz was actually what convinced the county to move forward. He said that study — commissioned by the township two years ago in response to the West Orange Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board’s concerns — showed that the intersection had enough peak hour vehicular volume to satisfy the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices criteria for installing signals. Specifically, he said there were enough vehicles in the area during the peak hour of 2:15 to 3:15 p.m. to warrant a light.

The township, county and BOE were able to work out the financing for the signal once Essex County gave its OK. The county’s approval was required since Pleasant Valley Way is a county road.

Now that it is settled, Lepore said the county has moved on to the design stage of the project. Like most modern traffic signals, he said this one will use a camera to detect vehicles so that the side roads, Alisa and Lakeview drives, will only get a green light when necessary. The engineer expects that the only time the signal will operate on a timer will be during the peak hour when school lets out, when traffic is busy on Alisa Drive as well as on Pleasant Valley Way.

With the project moving forward, county officials are eager to see the traffic signal set up. Freeholder Leonard Luciano told the Chronicle he saw firsthand how serious people’s concerns were after visiting the intersection with the BOE’s Sandra Mordecai and Laura Lab. Luciano said he advised them to pass a nonbinding resolution advocating for a light, which they did April 19. He also told them Essex County would support any safety measure they wanted as long as it was fine with local leaders.

Luciano lauded the board and the other advocates who spoke out in favor of a signal for going “above and beyond” to make the addition of a traffic light a safety priority. Since traffic safety is always a pressing issue for the freeholders, approving the light at Pleasant Valley Way’s intersection with Alisa and Lakeview drives was the right decision, he said.

“As a legislator, my mission is all about doing what makes sense,” Luciano said in a June 1 email. “This was supported for the safety of all motorists who travel through this intersection.”

County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. also acknowledged the benefit of having a traffic signal at the intersection. In a June 2 statement sent to the Chronicle, DiVincenzo said the section of Pleasant Valley Way by WOHS is an especially busy area of an already highly used roadway. Approving the light is a good first step in enhancing safety for the people who go to the school, he said. Plus, he added, it is a fine example of how the county works with its municipalities and school boards to make its streets safe.

Councilman Jerry Guarino agreed that the traffic signal could not have happened without cooperation between the township and Essex County. Guarino said he has called for a light by Alisa Drive since he was first elected to the Township Council in 2012, but it was not until he helped create the PSAB that any headway was made. He said that is because the PSAB members — who include township and school officials as well as traffic experts — were able to form a partnership with the county that allowed for progress to be made. Once everyone was on the same page and the study’s results were presented, the councilman said the signal became possible.

And Guarino looks forward to working with the county in the same way again.

“This is the way you should do everything,” Guarino told the Chronicle in a June 1 phone interview, adding that making demands to the county government will not work. “Bullying gets you nowhere. If you bully a person, they’re going to ignore you. You have to meet in a cooperative environment and sit down and talk politely and logically and sincerely of what you want to do.”

Guarino is certainly excited about getting the light he had long desired, pointing out that it should make it easier for people to overcome Pleasant Valley Way’s blind spots created by that area’s dips and curves. Fellow PSAB member Roz Moskovitz Bielski also is pleased to see the signal finally happening after years of advocating for it. But she wants to know why it took so long to happen.

Bielski said it should not take years for safety improvements to be added to West Orange’s streets. Instead, she said Essex County should be more proactive when it comes to changing roadways. For instance, though the county follows mandated criteria for adding tools such as traffic lights, she wishes that it did not have to rely so heavily on measures like crash data.

“Do we have to wait for people to die and get severely injured in order to change?” Bielski told the Chronicle in a June 1 phone interview.

The PSAB member has a lot of changes she would like to see made, too. Bielski mentioned reducing the speed limit on Pleasant Valley Way, doing a circulation study of WOHS and upgrading the traffic signal at the intersection of Pleasant Valley Way and Woodland Avenue as just a few of the things she wants to see done. But many of her objectives will require the county’s approval. As a result, she said everyone has to get on the same wavelength when it comes to making streets safer.

“Everybody has to sit down at the same table and figure out how to make pedestrians safer in West Orange. We have to embrace ‘Vision Zero’ principles, and that’s the bottom line,” Bielski said, referring to the multinational road safety program that aims to create a roadway system with zero fatalities or serious injuries. “We have to look at this as a big picture — the Pleasant Valley Way corridor and corridors in general — and how we can upgrade them.”