NORTHAMPTON — The two intersections in front of Northampton High School may receive new traffic signals as the city contemplates long-awaited improvements in an area where there have been numerous accidents in recent years, including one that killed a 69-year-old man in October 2021.
The city’s Parking and Transportation Commission approved several recommendations Tuesday, the most important 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 the engineering firm Fuss & O’Neill, which the city contracted with to study ways to improve traffic safety in front of the school. The study analyzed data on area traffic volumes, the number of turning movements along each intersection, and historical accident records over the past five years.
There have been 21 collisions in the area since 2017, including the death of cyclist Charlie Braun in October 2021. Additionally, two pedestrians were struck and a 15-year-old student was injured in November.
Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, who attended Tuesday’s commission meeting, called the effort to improve area safety an “absolute priority” for the city, and that she would work as quickly as possible to try to implement any changes. . She noted that the City Council currently has an order to allocate $500,000 of the American Rescue Act funds for the improvements, though additional funds would be needed.
“I think people sometimes think it’s very easy to just hang lights, but it’s a long process and also very expensive,” he said. “We want to allocate some funds to make sure we can start this process.”
The total cost of the project is estimated at 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 face value higher than that,” he said. “We are seeing major changes on the road.”
In addition to installing traffic lights, other changes recommended by the study include creating a hop-off lane within the high school parking lot and implementing one-way traffic during pick-up and hop-off times; remove five parking spaces on the east side of North Elm Street in favor of a bike lane; create a new parking lane on the north side of Woodlawn Avenue; and implement pedestrian “islands of refuge,” or sections of pavement, between crosswalks.
LaScaleia said that while a roundabout is the preferred option to improve intersections, the best option in this case is the installation of traffic signals.
“From a geometric standpoint, we don’t have the proper right-of-way on this part,” he said. “Mathematically, geometrically, (a roundabout) just doesn’t fit.”
Members of the public also offered comments on the recommendations.
City Councilor Alex Jarrett, whose District 5 straddles the area in question, said he wished a roundabout was possible but was generally 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 that people had the opportunity to speak on this issue,” she said, referring to some of the public comments at Tuesday’s meeting.
John Engel, who was present at the scene when the student was hit last November and has been an advocate for greater security in the area, said he appreciated the work the city had done to study the situation. However, he added, quicker solutions must also be sought to help mitigate potential future damage.
“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 someone died here, and that’s why we’re having this conversation.”
In addition to voting to approve the signalized intersections recommendation, the commission also approved two ordinances to make permanent the temporary parking bans around Woodlawn Avenue and to create school zones around the high school.
All votes were unanimous.
Alexander MacDougall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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