BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Orangetown residents came out in droves Tuesday evening to express their fears and frustrations about highway safety, particularly in Pearl River and Sparkill where recent accidents and even deaths have occurred on unprotected town, county and state roadways.
Town officials, from Council members to department heads, appeared mostly unprepared to respond to the onslaught of questions and accusations from the angry and worried residents. Rather than provide specific responses for each query, they instead relied on stock answers they have given before regarding the same complaints, saying either that “we are working on it” or trying to explain that various studies, permits and grants have to be obtained before any further progress can be made at each location.
Those responses failed to sway the angered audience, however, as they continued peppering the Town Board for more specific responses, and especially timetables for getting the actual work done.
Most residents came about pedestrian problems crossing North Middletown Road in Pearl River, where three deaths have occurred in the past few years in the vicinity of the Shop Rite Supermarket and CVS Pharmacy, located midway between the Central Avenue and Washington Avenue intersections.
In Sparkill, resident Esta Baitler continued her years-long campaign for the construction of sidewalks along Route 340, from Route 303 in Orangeburg to Kings Highway in Sparkill, refusing to accept board and highway entreaties that progress is being made, and work “could” begin as early as next month.
The most raucous demonstration was from the Pearl River residents, however, who said they were fed up with the number of recent accidents, the three deaths, and what they described as the general dangerous situation along Middletown Road, and particularly the block immediately north of Central Avenue.
Middletown Road was New York State Route 304 for decades until the State Highway Department built a by-pass to get around downtown Pearl River in the 1960’s. The state then gave the old route, including Central Avenue and Middletown Road, to Rockland County and they became county highways and responsibilities.
The block of Middletown Road between Central Avenue and East Washington Avenue is considered particularly dangerous, and where most of the recent accidents and deaths have occurred. The intersection with Central includes a large CVS Pharmacy, the large Shop Rite Supermarket, a busy gas station and convenience store and a popular Masonic Temple, all busy from early morning to late evening seven days a week.
Compounding the problem is the location of Pearl River High School directly behind Shop Rite, spilling hundreds of students onto and across the highway every morning and afternoon, and evenings and weekends when there are school activities.
Several small strip malls are located at and around the intersection of Middletown and East Washington, adding to the congestion of local residents, shoppers and students all scurrying to cross the busy highway where there are no traffic signals to slow or stop passing motorists.
Orangetown officials have been aware of the problem in this area for years, they told the residents Tuesday, and they have been hard at work trying to find remedies.
Because the road is a county highway, Orangetown can do nothing about the situation by itself, Highway Superintendent James Dean explained. He added that he does work closely with his county counterpart, Charles “Skip” Vezzetti, a Sparkill resident and former Orangetown Councilman and Highway Superintendent before moving up to the county level, and they are investigating various possibilities for improvements.
The Town recently applied for, and received a $2 million grant for a complete pedestrian safety re-design and re-construction of the area of Middletown Rd near Shoprite. Plans include traffic lights, pedestrian crossing signals, expanded sidewalks and other improvements. Supervisor Stewart presented the history of accidents and fatalities as aprt of making the case for this state funding, with letters of support from Pearl River School District, Pearl River Chamber, and the Senior Clubs, among others. Jim Dean reminded the Town Board and public that this project is being fast-tracked due to the dangers present, but that designing and building a $2M project does not happen overnight.
Residents appeared furious that no specific improvements are on anyone’s agenda yet, from the town to the county to the state, and no one seems to be taking responsibility for the horrendous conditions that currently exist at that location.
“How many more deaths is it going to take for someone to do something?” one man yelled from the audience, to loud cheers and applause and calls of “Amen” and “Right on.”
Dean and Council members said they were willing to proceed with improvements but needed direction from someone, especially with engineering and funding.
Suggestions for immediate improvements from the residents, if someone can figure out who is allowed to perform them, included installing a traffic light at Washington Avenue, installing speed bumps, humps or other vehicle slowing devices at several locations along Middletown Road to reduce speeding to better lighting at night and the installation of a pedestrian push-button-activated traffic light on Middletown Road where most crossings occur. Others included the installation of roadside fences along the highway to prevent unauthorized pedestrian crossings, working with the school district to prohibit students from crossing Middletown Road going to and from classes, building a fortress-like fence between the high school and Shop Rite to prevent students from ever reaching the dangerous highway and painting a pedestrian crossing walkway across the highway near Washington Avenue and having a school guard standing in the middle of the intersection.
Dean, Supervisor Andrew Stewart and members of the Council said they would seriously look at all suggestions, work with Vezzetti, and see what possible solutions they can come up with.
No Easy Fix
They cautioned residents that solutions would not come easily or quickly, however, because of the lack of jurisdiction, the lack of any studies and surveys, and the lack of financing sources.
In a related matter, Dean said he is awaiting a an accident investigation report from Police Chief Kevin Nulty regarding the most recent death of a pedestrian crossing Middletown Road at the cited location last month. That report will hopefully pinpoint the cause of the accident and death, in which the pedestrian was struck by a bus while crossing the busy highway between the two shopping centers.
And in yet another highway matter Blauvelt resident Watson Morgan warned the board that the intersection of Veterans Memorial Highway, Hunt Road and Old Orangeburg Road in Orangeburg has also become dangerous, and needs study and remediation. There is no traffic light there, but thousands of residents pass through that intersection daily using the many athletic fields that abound in that area. Many drive and many walk, Morgan said, making the intersection “A tragedy waiting to occur.”
And in still another traffic concern, the Town Board held a public hearing at 8 p.m. to amend its own traffic regulations in three areas of town. Parking will be prohibited on the west side of South Summit Street in Pearl River, from Central Avenue to its southern end, a stop sign will be installed on Duryea Lane in Pearl River at its southwest intersection with Bradl Lane and right-on-red turns will be prohibited at all hours in Orangeburg at the intersections of Lester Drive and Orangeburg Road and at Western Highway and Orangeburg Road. Right-on-red turns had been prohibited only between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m.
No one spoke at the hearing and the board subsequently adopted the new regulations unanimously.
The problem on Route 340 was made a little clearer Tuesday, but still not to Baitler’s satisfaction.
She has been fighting for sidewalks along that also busy highway for several years, noting that she lives there in the Kathy Lukens Independent Living Center of Camp Venture. Also located along that stretch of state highway is a Venture workshop, two large senior citizens apartment complexes, Long Island University’s Rockland campus, St. Thomas Aquinas College, and several other non-profit institutions with thousands of students, clients and residents.
There have been several accidents and near-accidents along the highway, Baitler has noted in her appearances, although no deaths so far.
She complained Tuesday that after each recent appearance she was promised that the installation of sidewalks was imminent, and about to start within a month or two.
“We really need these sidewalks,” Baitler again pleaded with the board Tuesday, telling the council “It’s not fair. It’s not right! Why is it taking so long?”
She refused to accept Dean’s assertion that construction could start in another month or two, saying she now wants specific dates, not “generalizations.”
Dean responded that the last of the property acquisitions along both sides of Route 340 has finally been obtained from the private owners. The narrow slivers of land along the highway are needed for it’s widening and the installation of sidewalks along both sides, he explained. With all legal elements now in place, Dean said the project is “ready to go” as soon as construction contracts can be prepared, advertised, solicited, received, reviewed and awarded by the Town Board.
Despite Baitler’s pleadings and demands, Dean said he would not give a specific date for the start of construction, other than to say generally that it should be “soon.”
Unsatisfied, Baitler said she would return, again and again, until she witnesses the actual start of construction.