Gregory School traffic upgrades appear to be working

Gregory accident doesn’t appear to be related to bus loop

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The controversial bus driveway and kiss-and-go lane that were constructed at Gregory Elementary School during the summer are operating as efficiently as hoped for, according to school officials.

Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky told the West Orange Chronicle that the school’s four large buses have been able to move into and out of the driveway very easily — much more so than when they were turning right onto Walker Road and left from Winding Way. Rutzky also said the vehicles on Gregory Avenue have been letting the buses out, and he has not seen any additional congestion on the busy county road.

“There hasn’t been a problem whatsoever,” Rutzky said in a Sept. 19 phone interview. “It has made things so much safer and so much smoother as far as the traffic flow.”

The kiss-and-go lane on Lowell Avenue is also going very well, Rutzky said, with vehicles spending roughly a minute to pull in, drop off their children and leave. It is becoming quite popular as well, according to Gregory Principal Michele Thompson. In a Sept. 16 statement to the Chronicle, Thompson said the kiss-and-go lane is being used by more and more parents each day. In fact, on the third day she said 75 vehicles used the lane within a 15-minute period with no backups.

The Gregory parents are indeed taking to the kiss-and-go lane, according to Ken Alper. Alper, who championed the parking improvements as the Gregory PTA’s traffic safety committee chairman, said everyone acclimated immediately to the idea of dropping their children off at the curb and quickly pulling away. He said it is now “unreal” how clear Lowell is in the mornings, thanks to the kiss-and-go.

“It’s a pretty well-oiled machine,” Alper told the Chronicle in a Sept. 19 email. “It’s amazing what a difference we’ve made in such a short time. It’s working just like we always said it would.”

Alper added that the expanded faculty parking lot has taken many cars off local side streets, freeing up more space for parents who prefer to park and walk their children to school. While there is still some congestion on Gregory, he said it is caused by the same reason it nearly always has been — vehicles waiting to turn left down Walker toward South Valley Street.

Councilwoman Michelle Casalino, who supported the project in her role as Township Council liaison to the Board of Education, said it is a relief to see everything going well after months of debate over whether the project might make Gregory Avenue’s bad traffic situation worse. And Casalino said she does not expect any issues with the bus driveway since the four buses arrive and leave at different times. A stop sign at the end of the loop also regulates the buses’ departures, she pointed out.

“The feedback I’m receiving is the driveway is running smoothly,” Casalino told the Chronicle in a Sept. 15 phone interview. “So with that feedback, I feel comfortable that all will be well.”

But, due to distracted driving, not everything went perfectly on Gregory Avenue in the days after school started. A three-car accident occurred in front of the bus driveway at approximately 8:35 a.m. on Sept. 13, resulting in vehicular damage but no injuries. The police report for the incident is not yet available to the public, though Jack Sayers, the township business administrator, said he learned from the West Orange Police Department that the driveway was not a factor in the crash. Sayers said that, according to police, the driver of the first vehicle was distracted and stopped short, causing the two cars behind to rear-end the vehicles in front of them.

But Heidi Sawyer, who lives across the street from the bus driveway, doubts this. According to Sawyer, who said she was outside at the time of the incident, the traffic in the southbound lane was bumper-to-bumper from Walker Road almost to the flashing lights at Roosevelt Middle School. While congestion has always been a problem on Gregory Avenue, she believes it has gotten worse since the driveway was installed.

Additionally, Sawyer said the car accidents that occurred on Gregory in the past almost always involved the intersection there, while this one did not. Plus, she said she finds it hard to believe that having a car accident occur in front of the driveway so soon after school started is simply a coincidence.

“It’s a sleeping giant — (the accident) doesn’t surprise me,” Sawyer told the Chronicle in a Sept. 16 phone interview. “What’s going to happen when we introduce weather elements that could potentially exacerbate this? If that road had been wet, the accident could have been more serious. If the cars had been closer to the intersection, then we’re introducing the possibility that pedestrians could have been injured.”

Councilman Joe Krakoviak, who opposed the project, said he would like to read the police report before deciding whether the bus driveway had anything to do with the accident. Though Krakoviak acknowledged that things seem to be going well so far, he said time will tell whether the buses entering and exiting the loop will worsen the difficult traffic situation on Gregory.

In the meantime, Krakoviak said he does have some concerns about the project. The councilman said the “staircase to nowhere” that was left in front of the school looks bad and should either be removed or given more utility. He also heard a report that buses are using Walker when they should not be, and questioned whether the expanded parking lot will help the parking situation on Winding Way. Additionally, he said he wants to know why township engineer Leonard Lepore told the Chronicle that the project cost approximately $365,000 when it was mentioned that the expense had reached more than $400,000 at the June 10 council meeting.

Lepore did not respond to request for comment before press time Sept. 20.

Sawyer said she also has an issue with the way the kiss-and-go lane is operating, saying that she has seen parents parked on Lowell Avenue in the afternoons, directly defying the traffic signs that state that no parking is allowed from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on school days. Though the Township Council has not officially approved those rules — they went before the council as an ordinance on first reading during its Sept. 20 meeting — they were meant to enforce the kiss-and-go lane once school started.

One afternoon Sawyer asked some of the parents about why they were parked, and they said the school had told them that the kiss-and-go rules were only for the morning drop off. The letter parents received explaining the kiss-and-go, which the Chronicle obtained, does state that the lane is to be used from 8:35 a.m. until 8:45 a.m. for “a more efficient morning drop-off procedure.” It does not mention anything about picking children up in the afternoon.

In order to prevent congestion, Sawyer said Thompson should instruct parents to follow the traffic signs. Otherwise, she said, Lowell will continue to be congested and the project will be pointless.

“The whole premise behind spending all this money was for the safety of the children,” Sawyer said, referring to the fact that students used to navigate around cars and buses on the narrow roadway. “Well, if you’ve got cars parked on either side — and I also observed a car that was double-parked — you haven’t solved the problem. You’ve got the same circumstances that existed when the buses were there.”

Rutzky said that the school is actually allowing parents to park on Lowell Avenue in the afternoons while the district evaluates how pickup should be handled. He said that picking up children is a different process from dropping them off since the children have to find their parents’ vehicles. If it is determined that the students are safe when parents park on Lowell in the afternoons, the superintendent said the parents will continue to be permitted to do so. But if changes need to made, he said the parents will be informed about them.

Meanwhile, Rutzky said that police officers have been at the school in the mornings and afternoons to make sure that everything runs smoothly. During the first several days they monitored the whole procedure, but now he said they stay just long enough to make sure all is OK. He said the police have told him that they are satisfied with the way the new layout is operating and with its effect on traffic flow.

The superintendent said he is grateful to the WOPD for its support and to Thompson and her staff for ensuring the driveway and kiss-and-go function as planned. He also thanked the township for funding the bulk of the project.

And while many residents opposed the idea of the township funding a school project, Councilman Jerry Guarino said he is glad he voted in favor of it. Guarino told the Chronicle that the driveway and kiss-and-go lane turned out so well that critics have told him they have changed their minds. And most importantly, he said the money spent on the work was worthwhile if it means preventing a tragedy.

“It’s going to save a kid’s life,” Guarino said. “I’d rather spend the money now than have a child be run over.”

Photos by Sean Quinn and Heidi Sawyer