Northampton study: Traffic signals needed in front of high school

NORTHAMPTON — The two intersections in front of Northampton High School may get new traffic signals as the city eyes long-awaited improvements to an area where numerous crashes have occurred in recent years, including one that killed a 69-year-old man in October 2021.

The city’s Parking and Transportation Commission on Tuesday signed off on several recommendations, the most significant being the need for new traffic signals at the intersection of North Elm and Elm Street, and North Elm and Woodlawn Avenue.

The recommendations were made by engineering firm Fuss & O’Neill, which the city hired to study ways to improve traffic safety in front of the school. The study analyzed data on traffic volumes for the area, the number of turning movements along each intersection and historical crash records over the past five years.

There have been 21 collisions in the area since 2017, including the death of bicyclist Charlie Braun in October 2021. Additionally, two pedestrians have been struck, with a 15-year-old student injured in November.

Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, who attended Tuesday’s commission meeting, called the effort to improve safety of the area an “absolute priority” for the city, and that it would work as quickly as possible to try to implement any changes. She noted that the City Council currently has an order to appropriate $500,000 from American Rescue Plan Act funds for the improvements, although additional funds would be needed.

“I think people sometimes think that it’s very easy to just hang lights, but it’s a long process and it’s also a very expensive process,” she said. “We want to appropriate some funds to make sure that we can get this process started.”

The total cost of the project is estimated to be about $3 million, according to Donna LaScaleia, director of the Department of Public Works and chair of the Transportation and Parking Commission.

“Depending on how long it takes to implement these (changes), we could be looking at a face value in excess of that,” she said. “We are looking at major changes to the roadway.”

In addition to the installation of traffic lights, other changes recommended by the study include creating a pick-up and drop-off lane inside the high school parking lot and implementing one-way traffic during pickup and drop-off times; removing five parking spaces on the east side of North Elm Street in favor of a bike lane; creating a new parking lane on the north side of Woodlawn Avenue; and implementing pedestrian “refuge islands,” or sections of pavement, between crosswalks.

LaScaleia said that even though a roundabout is the preferred option for improving intersections, in this case the better option is the installation of traffic signals.

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“From a geometric standpoint, we do not have the appropriate right of way in this part,” she said. “Mathematically, geometrically, (a roundabout) just does not fit.”

Members of the public also offered feedback on the recommendations.

City Councilor Alex Jarrett, whose Ward 5 straddles the area in question, said he wished a roundabout was possible, but that he was overall in favor of the recommendations.

“I think it’s a great plan. We have a long way to go before everything is finalized, so I was glad people had a chance to talk about this issue,” he said, referring to some of the public comment at Tuesday’s meeting.

John Engel, who was present at the scene when the student was struck last November and has been an advocate for greater safety in the area, said he appreciated the work the city had done to study the situation. However, he added, quicker solutions to help mitigate potential future harm should also be looked at.

“We need to take a moment to appreciate the human impact of what we’re talking about here,” he said. “We can’t forget that somebody died here, and that’s why we’re having this conversation.”

In addition to voting to approve the recommendation for signalized intersections, the commission also OK’d two ordinances to make temporary parking bans around Woodlawn Avenue permanent and to create school zones around the high school.

All votes were unanimous.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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