TC votes to approve contract with JTG for Gregory improvements

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council voted 4-1 to approve a resolution awarding a contract to JTG Construction Inc. of Newark to build the bus driveway and parking lot expansion at Gregory Elementary School during its June 14 meeting.

JTG Construction won the contract after bidding $364,862 for the project. That amount would have been higher considering JTG bid $196,573 for the parking lot improvements and $174,079 for using porous pavement in lieu of pervious pavers for the driveway. But the township agreed to handle all tree removal itself through the Department of Public Works, subtracting $5,790 from that total.

Leonard Lepore, the township engineer, said the decision to take on the tree removal instead of paying a contractor to do it was simply a cost-saving measure. Meanwhile, Lepore said the choice to use porous pavement stemmed from the township’s desire to take up as little space as possible for the driveway. He said using pervious pavers would have covered 14,000 square feet of space, while the porous pavement, which has a longer life span, will only stretch across less than 10,000 square feet.

And while some residents expressed fears that the porous pavement could lead to storm water runoff, Lepore stressed that the pavement is as effective as pervious pavers when it comes to preventing flooding.

“The end result is the same,” Lepore said. “They’re both going to allow the water to be absorbed into them, into the stone base that’s below them, as opposed to running off into the trench drains that are on each end of the driveway.”

Now that the contract has been approved by the council, Lepore said he can meet with JTG to discuss a construction timeline. But before any work can begin, the township will have to receive final approval from the Essex County Planning Board because Gregory Avenue is a county road. The county board had already approved the plan hours before the June 17 meeting, but that permission was granted on the basis that the township would satisfy eight conditions before starting to build. These conditions included adding an update to the plans illustrating how the bus driveway can accommodate all school buses without encroaching onto Gregory Avenue’s right-of-way, replacing all deteriorated curbing and sidewalks in front of the site and submitting a traffic analysis showing no adverse impacts to Gregory Avenue.

In a June 24 email to the West Orange Chronicle, Lepore said the township sent revised plans and a traffic analysis meeting these conditions to the county on June 22. He said he expects the board to grant final approval shortly. Additionally, he said revised plans were submitted to the Hudson Essex Passaic Soil Conservation District that same day. He said he also expects the district to approve the project’s soil erosion and sediment control plan soon.

The fact that local traffic was examined might seem to satisfy the many project critics who had long demanded a comprehensive traffic study, but the work done was not what they were expecting. Lepore clarified during the meeting that traffic engineer Harold Maltz, who was hired by project engineer J. Michael Petry to conduct traffic observations of the area last year, was doing an “analysis” for the county — not a full-fledged study. He explained that Maltz was to observe traffic on Gregory Avenue during the morning and afternoon while school was in session so he could report to the county board whether the project would have any negative impact on the road’s traffic. He was not required to look at any surrounding streets or the intersection at Walker and Lowell avenues, Lepore said.

As for the curbing and sidewalk replacement, Lepore said that condition will likely not be carried out by JTG Construction. Lepore explained that the condition must be satisfied for this project to be approved, but the township does have the option of doing the replacements separately instead of lumping them in with JTG’s other work.

“It needs to be done, but not necessarily by this contractor,” Lepore said. “There are other street-resurfacing contracts that may be more price advantageous.”

The cost of the whole project was a major issue for Councilman Joe Krakoviak, which is why he voted against the resolution awarding the contract. Krakoviak lamented that the township issued $357,140 in bonds to cover the plan when, according to his calculations, the construction will actually cost more than $400,000 with the absorption of soft costs. That excludes the additional expenses to address the county conditions.

That is a burden on the township’s budget, Krakoviak said, reiterating his belief that the school district should be paying for the project using its own funds. Instead, the district has agreed to pay roughly $7,000 to cover some of the soft costs.

On top of that, Krakoviak said he was still unconvinced that the bus driveway will have no adverse effect on Gregory Avenue. In particular, he said he said he does not see how four buses entering and exiting the driveway will not back up traffic. Overall, the councilman said he does not think this project is right for the Gregory community.

“I think there are too many unanswered questions,” Krakoviak said. “I think we’re rushing to this, and I think we could be doing more harm than good.

“I think everybody here wants a better solution to this (issue) to solve the problem and keep the kids and the adults and the school safe,” he continued. “I’m just not certain enough that that’s what’s going to happen.”

In response to Krakoviak’s financial concerns, township business administrator Jack Sayers said that the $357,140 in bonds was never intended to be the maximum amount the township would pay. Rather, Sayers said it is practically “impossible” to guess the amount a project would cost — exceeding the amount originally estimated is always a likelihood. As for the project itself, he said the administration is in full support of the driveway and parking lot expansion as methods of making the traffic situation safer on Lowell Avenue. Currently, children often have to exit parents’ vehicles into the road — in the path of buses and oncoming traffic — due to traffic backup.

“Child safety is the issue,” Sayers said. “This project should have happened years ago.”

As at previous meetings, the residents in attendance were divided as to the effectiveness of the project. Aside from the storm water runoff concerns, many questioned the effectiveness of the proposed “kiss and go” lane on Lowell that will be implemented for parent drop-offs once the buses are moved to Gregory. Former district teacher Jacqueline Dougherty opined that the kiss- and-go lane at Redwood Elementary School does not work very well, adding that she would be afraid for the Gregory students’ safety if police enforcement is not present.

Other residents argued in favor of the plan, pointing out that the buses already travel down Gregory Avenue as part of their current drop-off route without incident. Ken Alper, chairman of the Gregory PTA’s traffic safety committee, argued that children will eventually be killed unless they are separated from the buses.

In the end, the council majority agreed to support the plan by passing the contract, with Councilwoman Susan McCartney stressing her belief that freeing up Lowell Avenue is in the best interests of all residents.

“It just seems like it would be a better flow (of traffic),” McCartney said. “We’re trying to keep the cars moving so that cars and children are not jockeying for the same positions.”