Proposed ordinance lowers speed in PVW school zones

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The proposed ordinance amending the speed limits and school speed zone on Pleasant Valley Way was the subject of a debate that dominated the June 21 Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board meeting, with some board members arguing that the measure does not do enough to make the area safer while others stressed that getting Essex County to approve such widespread changes to one of its roads is not feasible.

The main topic of concern was that the ordinance does not feature a uniform speed limit for all of Pleasant Valley Way, something board members have been discussing for the past two years. Instead, the measure extends the 25 mph school speed zone to only cover the area from 100 feet north of the center of Cecil Lane Place to 100 feet north of the center of Greenwood Avenue. Additionally, it codifies the existing speed limits originally established by Essex County in 1964 but never officially adopted so that amendments to the speed limits can be made legally.

Pleasant Valley Way Civic Association President Roz Moskovitz Bielski said she liked the idea of expanding the school zone, but did not understand why the ordinance was so narrow in scope. She said having different speed limits along the length of Pleasant Valley Way — especially high ones such as 50 mph from Northfield Avenue to the center of Cornell Street — only encourages drivers to speed and puts pedestrians in danger. She said it was “unacceptable” to her that the Township Council would move forward with an ordinance that excludes much of what the board has discussed, especially when county Freeholder Leonard Luciano had recently told her the county would support any legislation put forward by the PSAB.

“Can’t we give the county the benefit of the doubt?” Bielski said. “Let’s work with them to lower the crash rate. Let’s work with them to make it safer for everybody to walk to school. Let’s make it safer for Golda Och students to come out of Pleasant Valley Way. Let’s look at this holistically, and let’s ask for what we want to ask.”

But reducing the speed limit is not that simple, according to Leonard Lepore, the township engineer, who said the county will want to see traffic data that shows lowering the limit is warranted before approving changes.

This is evidence the township currently does not have. Lepore said a traffic study conducted by the West Orange Police Department approximately one year ago showed that the current speed limits on Pleasant Valley Way met the 85th percentile standard for acceptable limits, meaning that at least 85 percent of the vehicles studied drove at or below the rate at which they were supposed to travel. That means the county would not view Pleasant Valley Way as eligible for a speed limit reduction unless new data showed otherwise.

While lowering the speed limit might not have been a possibility, Councilman Jerry Guarino said he nonetheless wants to make Pleasant Valley Way safer for students by expanding the school speed zone. In the ordinance Lepore extended the zone approximately 425 feet north and approximately 800 feet south from its current position. The school speed zone now stretches from Alisa Drive inclusive of the intersection to 200 feet south of Greenwood Avenue’s southerly curbline.

This new ordinance is not the end, Guarino stressed. While the measure is limited to the school zone, the councilman said additional amendments can be passed and sent to the county. But if the council approved an ordinance asking for a complete overhaul throughout Pleasant Valley Way, he said the Essex County Freeholders would not take the proposal seriously. Taking on the issue piece by piece, he said, lays the groundwork to show the freeholders that West Orange is determined to make its streets safer.

“I would love to get the whole corridor done — it’s not going to happen right now,” Guarino said. “We don’t have to time to wait for new studies and more traffic data. But the school zones (we can change). So let’s get that done and then we’re going to show them that West Orange is serious.”

If the township can show the county that West Orange is serious with the ordinance, Guarino added, then the freeholders will be more likely to get behind any future traffic-safety measures the council puts before them.

Still, Sangeeta Badlani of the Nikhil Badlani Foundation was not so sure the PSAB was moving in the right direction, saying that her philosophy is “You don’t ask, you don’t get,” so it did not make sense to her that the board would not at least try asking for changes on Pleasant Valley Way beyond the school-zone adjustment. She also worried that if the freeholders do approve the ordinance, they might actually be less willing to vote in favor of additional changes if proposed soon after this one.

Above all, Badlani questioned just how quickly another ordinance could come about.

“I just feel that we are prolonging the moment,” Badlani said. “It’s taken us two years to get to this point. It’s going to take us another two years to do another ordinance.”

Councilwoman Susan McCartney countered that amendments are proposed “frequently,” so asking for more changes after this measure should not be a problem. Plus, McCartney pointed out that the county would probably reject an ordinance calling for reduced speed limits on Pleasant Valley Way since the WOPD’s traffic data does not prove that it is necessary.

On top of that, McCartney said making substantial changes to this ordinance would force the council to defeat it and start over again. And she did not think that was a good idea.

“Since this was already introduced, let’s move forward with this and at least get this done,” McCartney said, adding that another ordinance could always be proposed just afterward. “This is a great first step.”

In the end, Badlani agreed that the PSAB should try starting this way — as long as it makes sure to continue asking for amendments. She and the other board members also liked Lepore’s idea to sit down with county representatives and lay out exactly what traffic safety goals the township hopes to accomplish moving forward. Guarino said he would request such a meeting.

Meanwhile, the ordinance will be heard on second and final reading at the Township Council’s June 28 meeting. It was previously approved on first reading 5-0 at the council’s June 14 meeting. If it gets final approval from the council members, it will be sent to Essex County for its approval.

Photos by Sean Quinn