Montclair officials have taken the first steps toward safety improvements in the area of the county-owned Mt. Hebron and Valley roads — an intersection near Bradford Elementary School that nearby residents describe in an online petition as “congested and dangerous.”

Several residents in the area say the need for changes is urgent. Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill, also advocating for safety improvements, says he’d personally been rear-ended at the intersection in February. It’ll ultimately be up to county officials to make any changes at the intersection itself.

“It is abundantly clear that the intersection of Valley Road and Mt. Hebron is a poorly designed and difficult to navigate intersection based on the volume of cars, the volume of pedestrian traffic and its close proximity to an elementary school,” resident Elizabeth Cuccaro Meyer wrote in an online petition started late last year. As of Tuesday, more than 570 people had signed it.

Bradford School is located on Mt. Hebron Road near the intersection. The main entrance to Montclair State University is two blocks away on Valley Road, at Normal Avenue.

Cuccaro Meyer wrote the Township Council must “act swiftly to address these safety issues in order to prevent more accidents and ensure the safety of the school children, families, staff and residents traveling by foot and by car.”

There were eight crashes at the intersection and 15 in the area in 2020 and 2021, Lt. Stephanie Egnezzo, the Montclair Traffic Bureau’s commander, told Montclair Local. A preliminary traffic study conducted over the course of a week in February didn’t find any speeding issue in front of Bradford School, but found an apparent issue on the stretch of Mt. Hebron Road just east of there, between Valley Road and Grove Street (where Mt. Hebron Road passes Immaculate Conception and Mt. Hebron cemeteries). Of nearly 25,000 vehicles traveling in front of 44 Mt. Hebron Road, the measured 85th percentile speed — the speed at or below which 85% of all vehicles was traveling — was 38 mph, despite a 25 mph speed limit.

The steps so far are preliminary, and there’s no timetable yet for more specific changes. Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and Councilman Peter Yacobellis are planning to introduce an ordinance in the coming weeks to establish Valley Road near Bradford School as a school zone — limiting speed limits to 25 mph, down from the 30 mph currently in effect. The Township Council passed a resolution earlier this month asking that the county install overhead “trombone-style” traffic lights at the intersection, instead of the ones mounted at poles at the intersection’s corners now. The township’s engineering department is planning a more expansive traffic study, and its results will be forwarded to county officials to inform other possible improvements.

Gill, in a recent letter to Montclair Local, said he supports making changes “proactively and with urgency, rather than waiting for horrific injury or worse due to unsafe traffic conditions” — both at the intersection of Mt. Hebron and Valley roads, and in the area of Watchung Plaza, where township officials are separately making adjustments to what turns are permissible while asking the county to take on a study in hopes of effecting longer-term improvements. 

“Three accidents [at Mt. Hebron and Valley roads] occurred in the month of November 2021 alone, one involving a turned-over car on a weekday morning while school was in session,” the county commissioner, also a Montclair resident, wrote in his letter. “These incidents have hit close to home as I was involved in a car accident at this very corner in February of this year.”

Several people signing the online petition described harrowing experiences at the intersection.

“I have personally almost hit someone at this intersection because there is just so much happening,” Pascale LaFountain wrote. “Kids run ahead of their parents across the street, some cars are in too much of a hurry to wait, and all the fast-moving traffic makes other cars feel like they need to also just get through the intersection fast without waiting for pedestrians. There is so much going on, everyone feels like they just need to get through quickly, and that rush increases risk.”

Theodore Papoulas wrote that he walks his children to Bradford School every day, “and this crossing is always of concern.”

“Last week when I was standing at the corner, a van went up on the sidewalk to get around a car making a left turn there,” he wrote earlier this year. “Too frequently, there are accidents there. … Something needs to be done.”

Cuccaro Meyer, in the petition, describes a number of issues. Among them: high foot traffic during school openings and dismissals, multiple bus stops nearby, crosswalks she describes as poorly marked and “often obscured,” what she called “minimal to non-existent signage” warning drivers of the foot traffic, and parking allowed near the intersection on narrowed lanes.

She asks for interim safety measures including stepped-up police patrols nearby and the planned traffic study. She’s also looking for more permanent safety upgrades such as pedestrian-activated crossing signs. Other improvements such as high-visibility reflective paint crosswalks, moved-back stop lines, relocated bus stops and the installation of actuated traffic signals (which respond to the presence of vehicles or pedestrians) might help as well, she wrote in the petition. 

“We are confident the town and county can make many budget-friendly improvements to ensure the safety of our residents,” she wrote.