Advisers continue work for safer streets

PSAB meets with county engineers about Pleasant Valley, stays hopeful for reduced speed limit

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Members of the West Orange Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board recently held a meeting with Essex County representatives regarding traffic safety measures that can be implemented in the area of Pleasant Valley Way and Main Street, including the possibility of lowering speed limits on Pleasant Valley Way.

Recapping the Aug. 23 gathering during the PSAB’s own meeting two days later, Leonard Lepore, the township engineer, said county engineer Sanjeev Varghese and other members of the county’s engineering division made it clear that they would not support speed limit reductions not backed up by traffic-study data. In other words, Essex County will not endorse any change if at least 85 percent of vehicles studied drive at or below the rate at which they are supposed to travel. This means a speed adjustment is unlikely, as West Orange Police Officer Chris Jacksic previously informed the board that the WOPD’s latest analysis found that Pleasant Valley Way’s traffic meets this 85th-percentile standard.

However, the county is not entirely opposed to the idea of lowering speed limits there, Lepore said.

“I don’t want to say they’re not interested in changing speed limits — they’re supportive,” Lepore said. “Mr. Varghese committed to our police traffic bureau as well as to me that we can work with (the county’s engineering division) to look at where and how we can best study speed limits along that corridor to effectuate a change.”

Varghese also confirmed at the Aug. 23 meeting that his engineering division is in the final stages of reviewing the West Orange Township Council’s approved ordinance extending the 25 mph school speed zone on Pleasant Valley Way, Lepore said. Additionally, Lepore said that Varghese promised to install signage demarcating the extension once approved by the Essex County Freeholders.

Lepore said he does not know what kind of signage the county plans to erect, though West Orange has committed to implementing flashing signs if the county does not install them first. Civil engineer Mike Dannemiller suggested that the PSAB request to see Essex County’s signage plans so it can offer feedback before anything is erected, something other board members agreed was a good idea.

Aside from signage, Lepore said that the county engineering division will look into putting pedestrian signal heads at the intersection of Woodland Avenue and Pleasant Valley Way. Though that is one of the oldest traffic signals in town, he said the county could still add to it. Essex County just should make sure that the signal has the conduit capacity to handle more wires, he said.

In addition, Lepore said Varghese vowed to support West Orange when it applies for one of the highly competitive grants from the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority’s Transportation Alternatives Program. In fact, he said Varghese even offered to have the county take the lead on the application, which Lepore said was an excellent option.

“If they were to take the lead, I think that helps the application’s success more so than if we were the ones — even with their support — applying for it,” Lepore said. “So I look forward to working with the county on that.”

The Essex County representatives did not commit to every idea proposed at the meeting, though. Lepore said they were unsure about putting a traffic light at the intersection of Alisa Drive and Pleasant Valley Way due to its proximity to other signals in the area. Dannemiller said the signals at Pleasant Valley Way’s intersections with Hooper and Stanford avenues were 850 feet away and 950 feet away, respectively.

Lepore said the county would be willing to support an ordinance banning left turns there, but pointed out that even making a right turn can be difficult due to sightline issues. He said he planned to share a traffic study with Essex County that shows a light is warranted.

The county also did not commit to the notion of changing the striping on Main Street to include parking. According to Lepore, the county representatives said that a traffic study would have to be done first, though it would not pledge itself to one.

Still, Lepore appeared optimistic in the wake of the meeting, especially since the county representatives agreed to continue meeting with the PSAB on a periodic basis. Councilman Jerry Guarino also was pleased about the meeting, describing it as the culmination of the board members’ hard work. Yet with more meetings on the horizon, Guarino pointed out that there is still a lot more planning to do.

“It’s very promising to see this happening,” Guarino said. “Now when we meet we have to put together our action plan so that every quarter when we meet with the county, we’re going to have documentation from them saying ‘Here guys, this is what we’ve looked at, this is what we want to do and this is how we’d like to go about it.’”

The other board members also seemed pleased with the meeting’s outcome, though they still had some ideas on what should be done. Pleasant Valley Way Civic Association President Roz Moskovitz Bielski suggested putting a “Don’t Block the Box” area near Fire Station 4 since there is no signage indicating to drivers that the station is situated there. Bielski also brought up finding out how Bloomfield Avenue’s speed limit was reduced to 25 mph so West Orange could possibly follow the same method.

Councilman Joe Krakoviak advised against doing another traffic study on Pleasant Valley Way, saying the data will likely again show that drivers are meeting the 85th percentile standard. Instead, he suggested looking into the strategies other municipalities in Essex County and other counties used to reduce speed limits. He also suggested implementing greater traffic enforcement on Pleasant Valley Way since he does not believe there is currently enough enforcement to address the issues there.

“Our traffic enforcement along Pleasant Valley Way averages out to two enforcement actions per month,” Krakoviak said, referring to data he sent to some of the board members. “What that suggests to me is that we’re not focused on that area as much we should. I’m sure you spend a lot more time on Pleasant Valley Way than I do, but every time I go over there I can see people clearly exceeding the speed limits at all times of the day.”

Former Montclair Mayor Jerry Fried, who currently works for Rutgers University’s Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center, stressed that West Orange should join with other local communities to ensure Essex County is following through with its Complete Streets policy. Complete Streets are those designed to accommodate all users — motorists, cyclists and pedestrians — in a safe and advantageous manner. Fried said Complete Streets is a key reason why millennials move to a community and why the businesses that employ them choose to set up shop. But if towns do not implore the county to take the lead on implementing Complete Streets, they will remain stuck with the same unsafe and unappealing roadways they have now.

“The Complete Streets angle is something which absolutely needs to be branded and carried by the unified communities of Essex County,” Fried said. “There are literally tens of millions of dollars being spent (by Essex County) that are making people’s lives less healthy and stifling the economic development of North Jersey.”

Senior citizens advocate Rosary Morelli agreed that uniting with neighboring towns should be viewed as essential. Morelli also expressed her belief that the PSAB is not moving fast enough to bring about changes for pedestrian safety. After all, she said, many other communities started to implement Complete Streets before West Orange.

But Guarino argued that making streets safer is a marathon, not a sprint. The councilman said the PSAB has come a long way since forming two years ago, to the point that other municipalities are now looking at West Orange as a model. And now with more meetings with the county to look forward to, he said the future is looking bright.

“Everything is going in the right direction,” Guarino said. “I’m extremely proud of this board for how much you’ve accomplished and how much more we’re going to accomplish.”

As for Fried’s suggestion, Guarino agreed that West Orange should reach out to other communities to make sure it was not pursuing any safety methods that have already been accomplished elsewhere. At the same time, the councilman said the board should focus on improving the township above all else.

Photos by Sean Quinn