Orangetown Agrees to State Upgrade of Rt. 303

$4.5 Million project at Erie Street in Blauvelt
BY ROBERT KNIGHT
CITY EDITOR
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES

The Town of Orangetown has agreed to maintain sidewalks and landscaping along Route 303 in Blauvelt, in exchange for having New York State completely rebuild the highway’s intersection with Erie Street in Blauvelt.

The NYS Department of Transportation has been studying the dangerous intersection for several years, and has now agreed to spend about $4.5 million in a massive upgrade which includes widening the four-lane roadway to five lanes, creating special turn lanes, and creating a safety barrier between north and south-bound lanes of traffic.

The plans were given to Orangetown for review over a year ago, and the town created a special citizens advisory committee to assist in that review. Public input, with which the town agreed, included substantial landscaping in and around the new highway, to make it more attractive and pedestrian friendly.

The recommendations included the installation of sidewalks on the east and west sides of the highway, bordering those sidewalks with trees and shrubs, and the planting of additional trees and shrubs inside one of the two medians which the state will create to separate north and south-bound lanes of traffic.

The state also agreed to maintain the highway and the intersection, including repairs and snowplowing once the upgrades are complete. It already does that anyway, on the existing highway.

The DOT tossed the ball back to Orangetown, however, when it came to maintaining the landscaping. “We’ll take care of the roadway itself,’ the state essentially told the town, “but you’ll have to maintain the landscaping, at your expense.” If Orangetown agreed, the state said it would proceed with actual construction sometime this year.

Who Does What

The issue, according to the DOT, is that they are responsible for building and maintaining state highways, such as Route 303, but they are absolutely NOT responsible for maintaining any landscaping that local municipalities may want installed. They do not have the personnel, the equipment or the expertise to plant trees, shrubs, flowers and grass, the agency insisted.

If Orangetown would agree to perform the maintenance, DOT said, the state would meet them halfway and purchase the plantings and hire private firms to perform the installation as part of the overall project. From then on, however, it would be entirely up to the town to maintain those plantings, including watering, fertilizing, trimming and cutting. The town would also have to replace any plantings damaged by storms, drought, accidents or other causes.

Orangetown has two departments of government that typically provide such maintenance’ the highway department for roadside plantings and the parks and recreation department for plantings within town parks and around town buildings and facilities.

Inter-municipal Cooperation

Orangetown typically does not do extensive roadside plantings, however, or their maintenance. Highway Superintendent James Dean said this usually involves just planting some trees along streets in downtown shopping areas, and sharing the responsibility for their maintenance with local shopkeepers or business groups.

Parks and Recreation Superintendent Aric Gorton said his department has extensive vegetative maintenance responsibilities at the town’s dozens of parks and golf courses, and has the manpower, the equipment and the expertise to maintain those plantings.

But the parks department never maintains highway plantings, and the highway workers never maintain park plantings, both men told the Town Board when quizzed last week about who would assume such responsibility.

Rather than risk another state rejection of the 303 improvement project, however, or risk the wrath of disgruntled council members or Blauvelt area residents, Dean and Gorton eventually told the Town Board they could work together on the project, and come up with a landscaping maintenance program that would hopefully meet all expectations.

Based on that assurance, the Town Board voted unanimously Tuesday evening to approve two contract agreements with the DOT.

The first stipulates that the town agrees to have the DOT install new sidewalks on the east and west sides of the highway, as part of the highway improvement project, and for its part will provide their maintenance, specifically including snow and ice removal in the winter and vegetation control in the spring through fall. Giving itself a slight escape hatch, the resolution also says if the town can’t do the work itself for any reason, it will pay to have private contractors do it for them.

The second resolution stipulates the town also approves of the state landscaping scheme, in which the state will provide for the installation of pavers, trees, shrubs and/or other plants, as well as mulch, and that the town will provide for their perpetual maintenance.

Project Described

A large rendering of the highway improvement project, including landscaping, was displayed during both Town Board meetings this week and last, giving the audience a glimpse of the $4.5 million plan.

The entire project is about a third of a mile in length, extending from Valentine’s Electric office south to Starlite Limousine.

The road surface will be five lanes in width, with a concrete barrier separating north and southbound lanes. Route 303 is currently four lanes wide, with no barriers and no sidewalks, as well as no turning lanes at the Erie Street intersection.

From Starlite Limo north to the traffic light at Erie Street, 303 will be three lanes wide, with two southbound lanes on the other side of the barrier. There will be a left stacking lane for traffic wanting to make a left turn onto Erie Street. Driving south from Valentine electric, it will be the opposite, with three southbound lanes and two heading north.

The center barrier dividing north and southbound traffic from Erie Street south will be just a single concrete barrier, with a southbound turn lane to enter the Casa Mia catering hall parking lot.

From Erie Street north to Valentine Electric there will be two parallel center barriers, with dirt and tree and shrub plantings in between. There will be no turning lanes for the length of that barrier. Sidewalks will flank the outermost north and southbound lanes, and tree and shrub plantings may be within those sidewalks or along their outermost borders, away from the highway.

Neighbors Divided

Neighbors of the project have appeared divided on the pros and cons involved. Most have expressed relief that the dangerous intersection will finally have a measure of safety installed, making it safer for pedestrians in the area and reducing the number of vehicular accidents.

They have also expressed regret over the fate of the three stores that will lose all of their parking, however, essentially putting their businesses at risk. Typical of the reactions is that of Paul Valentine, who is both a Town Board member and the owner of Valentine Electric, at the north end of the improvement project.

He said he has seen dozens of accidents along that dangerous stretch of highway, and believes the improvement project is “absolutely necessary, and long overdue.” He has also been critical of the DOT, however, for what he calls their lack of attention to the suffering that will be imposed on the three merchants, who are his business neighbors. The state should have considered their plight and come up with a remedial plan of some sort, Valentine has said, such as moving them, giving them access to nearby parking or compensating them for their loss. As far as he knows, Valentine says the state has done nothing for the three merchants.

Next Move State’s

Now that Orangetown has passed the two resolutions the State DOT wanted, they will be forwarded to that state agency, and the town will await the next move. Stewart and Dean said they expect that will come within the next month or two, and that hopefully the actual construction will begin this spring or summer, after years of planning and delays.