Though it may have occurred during the final hours of Valentine’s Day, there was certainly no love lost at an emotional meeting Tuesday night.
At the beginning of a sweeping presentation that summarized almost eight years of history behind the Council’s decision to install a pedestrian-activated stoplight on Central Avenue, Mayor Andy Skibitsky spoke of the importance of building a consensus.
But after more than two more hours of discourse on a subject that has dominated public meetings for more than a year, and after a night that saw considerable conflict between residents as well as Council members, the only consensus reached was that the controversial mid-block traffic signal will not be moving anytime soon.
The Council voted 7-1 to not endorse a proposal made in a county commissioned report to replace the current stoplight on Central Avenue between Cedar and Clover Streets with a traffic light at the intersection of Central and Clover. The resolution was proposed by Skibitsky and quickly seconded by Second Ward Councilwoman Joann Neylan, who is also Chair of the Public Safety, Transportation and Parking Committee.
Third Ward Councilman David Haas, the only Council member to vote against the resolution, requested waiting until both the Council and members of the public had more time to read the traffic report before deciding whether to accept or reject its proposal. But the majority of the Council supported the process that lead to the decision to install the stoplight as well as the location of the signal itself.
“The current system works,” Skibitsky said. “It works well.”
The report, which was conducted by the consulting firm Pennoni Associates and commissioned by Union County, was dated Dec. 20, 2011 and received by the town last Thursday, according to the resolution. In addition to confirming that the signal was installed in accordance with the 2009 Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) standards and guidelines, the report also affirmed that the signal has been serving its purpose since its installation.
“Based on observations, the signal operates as intended and is utilized by pedestrians,” the report states.
However, the report also includes a proposal to “replace [the] current mid-block HAWK signal with a ‘standard’ signal installation at Central Avenue and Clover Street.”
Skibitsky said the report will be available on the town’s website today.
In a particularly significant passage, the report states that “[t]he removal of the HAWK signal and the installation of a ‘standard’ signal at Central Avenue and Clover Street would require a considerable amount of work, including additional signal equipment and providing ADA compliant handicap ramps on all of the corners, without necessarily providing any measurable improvement in intersection safety.”
First Ward Councilman Frank Arena said the report was particularly compelling when it concluded that replacing the stoplight with a standard traffic light at the intersection of Central and Clover would not definitely be a safer alternative. He expressed hesitation to engage in what he speculated could be additional years of meetings and conversations leading to an end result that might not be as good as the stoplight that is in place now.
But while Arena focused on the possibility that moving the signal might not necessarily lead to a more effective outcome, Haas was less quick to disregard the report’s proposal. Though he clarified that the current mid-block signal is better than not having any signal at all, Haas said it was significant that the only study specifically tasked with tracking the effectiveness of the stoplight to date suggested that it should be at the intersection of Central and Clover and not at its current location.
“The fact that this is an improvement does not mean it’s the optimal improvement,” Haas said.
The Council’s discussion followed a 20-minute presentation by Skibitsky that detailed the process leading up to the decision to install the stoplight at its current location. Improving traffic conditions on Central had been a goal of the Council for 30 years and Skibitsky said discussions to mitigate traffic issues there and in other hotspots around town received particular attention beginning with the creation of a Traffic Safety Committee in July of 2004. He said that the subsequent process was deliberate, pragmatic and included notifications sent to every home in town.
“There was a lot of outreach to the public,” he said.
Skibitsky said the Council had three objectives when it decided how to best approach any alleviation of traffic issues on Central Avenue: providing a safe crosswalk for school children and other pedestrians, minimizing traffic flow interruptions and preventing cut-through traffic on side residential streets. Neylan said there was compelling evidence supporting the fact that the stoplight has effectively met these objectives.
“This improves safety at Central Avenue,” said Neylan, who also emphasized the importance of all pedestrians and drivers taking more responsibility for their own actions in order to reduce the risk of future accidents.
The decision to place the signal – activated by the county last February – on Central at the Cambridge Road cul de sac stemmed from data indicating that a mid-block crosswalk involves fewer “points of conflict” than a crosswalk at a traditional intersection. In other words, a person crossing a mid-block walkway has to worry about vehicles entering the crosswalk from only two potential traffic directions, whereas an intersection crosswalk could contain as many as 12 different points of conflict. This reasoning drew particular support from Fourth Ward Councilman James Foerst.
“I don’t teach my child to cross the street by looking in 12 different directions,” said Foerst, who supported the mid-block signal location. “There’s a common sense solution [to the Central Avenue traffic problem]. We’ve implemented it.”
Haas said that no pedestrian would actually ever have to look 12 different directions before crossing the street, suggesting that Foerst’s inference that a crosswalk intersection was six-times more dangerous than a mid-block crosswalk was distorting the points of conflict data. He again stressed that the Council had before it the only report that was asked to specifically determine the best location of the signal and that it proposed moving it to the corner.
“I’m not ready to reject that,” he said.
Skibitsky said he was confused by Haas’ stance, reciting two statements that Haas had made at previous Council meetings that seemed to infer that Haas was opposed to installing a traffic light at the intersection of Central and Clover.
“I don’t have the luxury of taking every side of this issue, which you have done with the crosswalk,” Skibitsky said.
Haas repeated that having a mid-block pedestrian-activated crosswalk is an improvement over not having one and commended the Council on resolving a 30-year problem. He said he still does not advocate a traditional timed traffic light at the intersection of Central and Clover, but said there could be other options, such as a censor-equipped signal at the intersection that is predominantly green but changes as needed to accommodate pedestrians looking to cross the street.
About an hour after the meeting started, the Council ended its discussion and voted 7-1 to pass the resolution. Second Ward Councilwoman Vicki Kimmins was not present at last night’s meeting.
The second-half of the meeting opened the floor to public comments, which presented various perspectives on both sides of the stoplight issue. Frank Foley, who said his parents live in close proximity to the stoplight, questioned how the Council defined “vicinity” when measuring the number of accidents that have occurred in the area of Central and Clover during recent years. He also suggested that moving the light to the intersection would be a safer alternative.
“Isn’t it a little bit safer to have [the signal] at the corner?” he asked the Council.
Foerst answered Foley’s question in the negative. Foley also had an exchange with Skibitsky relating to a dispute the two allegedly had a local barber shop Saturday morning regarding public safety.
Adina Enclescu, who had the stoplight installed in front of her property and has been addressing the Council at its meetings ever since, said that Skibitsky’s presentation failed to take into account that the mid-block signal creates additional points of conflict emanating from her driveway. She suggested the Council was acting in an undemocratic fashion, an accusation that Skibitsky refuted.
The Council also received a large amount of praise and thanks from residents supporting their decisions on this issue and the Council members’ general civic duty.
“I’m just really here to just thank you,” resident Janice Sampson said.
Tony DelDuca told the Council that he trusts its judgment, but also said that the way the stoplight issue has degraded into a series of personal attacks is “an embarrassment.”
“This isolated issue has gone much too far,” said DelDuca, before demanding that the aggrieved parties put an end to it immediately.
Dan Lynch, who said he has resided in Westfield for more than 40 years, said he has seen other problems that dwarf this one be resolved in a shorter time.
“You probably had a good reason in the beginning,” Lynch told Encelscu, before telling her that she cannot bring the Council to its feet anymore. “You lost the battle,” he told her.
Kimball Avenue resident Wally Parker said that while every resident has the right to raise issues to the appropriate governing body, it is incumbent to show respect and to be reasonable when considering how a process is adjudicated.
“There is no easy answer,” Parker said. “You can just do what’s in the best interest of the majority of the people. I think our town has done that.”
The string of speakers in support of the Council was markedly different from most recent meetings and was a pattern that did not go unnoticed. As Parker left the microphone, Haas commented that it was strange that there was suddenly a large group of residents speaking in support of the Council and wondered why so many happened to be in attendance last night.
“This issue has been beaten to death,” answered Parker, who had returned to the microphone and seemed to speak for the majority of residents in attendance. “It’s time we move on.”
Foerst then made a remark to Haas, saying that just because Haas did not like what many of the residents had to say did not mean they did not have the right to say it. Haas responded by telling Foerst that is not what he said and told Foerst not to put words in his mouth.
About 20 minutes later, Neylan returned to Haas’ comment and expressed her disappointment that he would say something that she said called the integrity of the entire Council into question.
“I find that extremely offensive,” said Neylan, who told Haas his comment was “inappropriate” and said she did not appreciate the innuendo he was making. Haas clarified that he was not questioning anyone’s right to be present and to speak at the meeting, but disagreed with Neylan that his remarks rose to the level of being inappropriate.
Enclescu’s neighbor Maria Carluccio, who has attended meetings with her for more than a year and has vehemently advocated moving the light, maintained her position that the mid-block location is a dangerous one and claimed it has helped lead to .
“You’re not getting it,” she told the Council. “The cars don’t stop when the light is activated because [the light] is in the middle of the road.”
Carluccio’s comments caused Foerst to momentarily leave the meeting and also drew criticisms from the audience, some of whom she referred to as “elitist snobs.”
“All [that] these people did was come up here and blow smoke,” Carluccio said.
“When the accidents stop, I’ll stop,” she later added. “When the light is moved, I’ll stop coming.”
As the meeting drew to a close, Skibitsky said that it is important that Council members and residents be able to have dispassionate discussions of passionate subjects, but returned to the notion that consensus is difficult to reach.
“If you try to please everyone,” he said, “we’ll be at a complete standstill and nothing would ever change.”