NORTHAMPTON — During their meeting on Jan. 19, the City Council approved the appropriation of $500,000 for the design, bidding and construction of safety improvements around Northampton High School.
The push for long-awaited improvements around the high school comes after numerous crashes in the area in recent years, including one fatal one that killed a 69-year-old man in late 2021.
The city hired the engineering firm Fuss & O’Neill to study traffic volumes, speeding issues, the volume of crashes over the past several years, and turning patterns around the school.
Through these studies, the firm offered several recommendations for safety improvements around the school during the Transportation and Parking Commission meeting on Jan. 17.
The most significant of these changes involves the installation of traffic light signals at the intersection of North Elm and Elm Street, and North Elm and Woodlawn Avenue.
For the past year, the Northampton Transportation and Parking Commission and various entities throughout the city have been working together to find different ways through which traffic issues around Northampton Public Schools can be mitigated.
In October 2021, Reminder Publishing reported on a meeting conducted by the Transportation and Parking Commission during which Director of Public Works Donna LaScaleia, school officials, and members of the public joined to disperse ideas on the matter since Northampton High School (NHS) administrators noted a high level of car activity during pick up and drop off times. Days prior to that meeting, a fatal cyclist crash occurred at the intersection of Elm Street and Woodlawn due to a distracted driver.
Additionally, at the end of January, one of the crossing guards at NHS was struck by a vehicle in an apparent hit-and-run incident. During a meeting in February, LaScaleia met with the School Committee to discuss short- and long-term strategies for improving traffic safety after months of concern throughout the district.
In another incident last month, a 15-year-old boy was struck by a vehicle while using the crosswalk outside of the school. The driver who struck the boy was looking in their rearview mirror because they believed that the vehicle behind them was tailgating. When the driver struck the boy, the car behind them rear-ended the driver’s vehicle.
Findings and Recommendations
According to Fuss & O’Neill’s study, there have been 21 collisions over the past five years.
Aside from the traffic light signals, the firm also recommended one-way traffic during pickup and drop-off times, creating a pickup and drop-off lane inside the high school parking lot, removing five parking spaces on the east side of North Elm Street for a bike lane, implementing pedestrian “refugee islands” between crosswalks, and creating a new parking lane on the northside of Woodlawn Avenue.
City Council meeting
“I’ve made this project and making this area safer a critical priority, and I’d like to move forward as quickly as possible with the planning and design of these made recommendations by Fuss & O’Neill,” said Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, during the council meeting.
According to Sciarra, the $500,000 appropriated is from American Rescue Plan Act funds, but additional money will be necessary for future improvements. “I think this is a good use of these lost revenue funds to be able to get this moving now,” she said.
LaScaleia said that any improvements the city makes around the NHS area must be part of a “network of improvements.”
“When we engaged Fuss & O’Neill, we asked them to look at a variety of scenarios, including the installation of roundabouts on Route 9 … with the ultimate goal of improving traffic safety,” said LaScaleia. “It’s a basket of recommendations that all work together to increase traffic, bicycle, and pedestrian safety in the area.”
The next steps, according to LaScaleia, involve creating a comprehensive design plan with all these recommendations so the design firm can create drawings for something feasible.
“These projects are very long developing, so we will likely at a design period of about 12 months,” said LaScaleia. “At this time next year, I would expect to have pretty close to a final design for all of the improvements … with actual details and a big package that I can put out to bid to hire someone to build it.”
The hope is for construction to begin in summer of 2024, which is an ideal time of year since school would not be in session. It is unclear if the improvements can be completed in one construction season, according to LaScaleia.
“The traffic by the high school is an area in need of safety improvements,” said Councilor Karen Foster, who also serves on the Transportation and Parking Commission. “The sooner we can move on this, the sooner we can make it safer it for commuters, students, teachers and everyone who travels through that every day.”
The Transportation and Parking Commission also approved two ordinances to make temporary parking bans around Woodlawn Avenue permanent and to create school zones around the high school.
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