WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Township Council unanimously passed a resolution on Nov. 13 to support the New Jersey State Department of Transportation designating State Highway 10, aka Mt. Pleasant Avenue, as a school zone between the Livingston township line and where it intersects with Kelly Drive and Merklin Avenue, changing the speed limit from 40 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour during hours when children are present. The zone will encompass the area surrounding Liberty Middle School.
West Orange Township Engineer Len Lepore told the West Orange Chronicle in a phone interview on Nov. 15 that the original request he put in to the state also included a school zone on Mt. Pleasant Avenue for the area surrounding Mt. Pleasant Elementary School, but that request was denied. Because the highway is not contiguous to the school, which is located at 9 Manger Road, and there are designated crossing zones at the intersection of Manger and Ellison roads, the changes will only affect the area around LMS.
“The changes to the speed limit apply when children are present — at the beginning of the day, at the end of the day and during recess,” Lepore said. “The mere fact that the school is along the highway was enough to designate it a school zone.”
After the town completed a traffic study, the state transportation department had to conduct a study of its own. Lepore said the resolution had to pass for the state to agree to the school zone and, now that the resolution has passed, new signs will be installed noting that the area is a school zone and the change of speed limit.
Neither traffic investigator Stephen Branco or Supervisor of Traffic Investigations Mark Hiestand responded to a request for comment by press time on Nov. 19.
LMS Principal Robert Klemt told the Chronicle in an email on Nov. 15 that approximately 75 of the school’s 530 students live within walking distance. He also credited West Orange High School freshman Soham Bhatnagar, a former LMS student, with initiating the process to create the school zone.
“I was a small part in this effort as Soham’s drive to make change happen spearheaded the entire process,” Klemt said. “Liberty Middle also hosted a ‘Safe Routes to Schools’ presentation in April 2018 that coincided with this process in educating our students in the safe use of crosswalks and signal crossings.”
Bhatnagar gathered signatures to support the school zone from LMS, Mt. Pleasant and Garden Academy, a school for children with special needs that is also located on Mt. Pleasant Avenue. In June, Bhatnagar also successfully advocated for pedestrian beacon signals, which were installed down the street from LMS on the corner of Kelly Drive and Baxter Lane.
“There were definitely lots of challenges in that area,” he said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Nov. 16. “So now best practices can be followed during school hours.”
Bhatnagar said the creation of the school zone will make the street easier for pedestrians to navigate, especially when student club meetings end.
“It helps with several aspects,” he said. “I think it’s going to be easier to cross there now. There’s a crossing guard there until 4 p.m., but some Liberty clubs get out at 5. I’m grateful for everyone who helped make it happen.”
Councilman Jerry Guarino, the council’s liaison to the West Orange Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board, said Lepore and the PSAB have been working toward the creation of the LMS school zone for approximately two years.
“We’ve been working with the schools in pushing to make them more walkable,” Guarino said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Nov. 14. “This is a step in the right direction. Signs will make it more visible for drivers and students.”
Guarino said he is looking to work more closely with the school district in the future, in addition to increasing traffic enforcement around the town’s schools.
“We want to get more input from the schools and right from the parents, rather than from the superintendent and administration,” he said. “We also would like more enforcement. You can have all the signs in the world, but without enforcement it doesn’t matter. We’ve been doing everything we can, so that’s why this initiative is important.”