Residents are calling for action, with a new petition to make Montclair streets safer and stop an increase in car crashes. One mother is still waiting for action and answers after she and her daughter were hit by a car in Watchung Plaza in March 2022.
The mother, who asked to remain anonymous, was crossing the intersection with her nine-year-old daughter when a vehicle suddenly drove forward, knocking the mother to the ground.
The mother and daughter did not sustain any physical injuries, but were visibly “shaken” and “frozen in shock,” she recalls.
Robert Genovese, who owned Local Coffee at that time, had a direct view of the intersection, and saw the accident happen.
Genovese said he has “witnessed everything from somebody getting hit by a bus to probably a dozen or more accidents” at the Watchung Plaza intersection.
At the time of the incident in March 2022, there had already been three other accidents that year. In 2021, there were 10 crashes; in 2020 there were 13; and in 2019 there were 19, two involving pedestrians, according to the Montclair Police Department.
Both Genovese and the mother reached out to township and county leaders to express concern and started a petition that generated 1,350 signatures.
The Long Wait For A Traffic Light
The mother said local and county officials said they would make the issue their “top priority.” In January 2023, there was the promise of a traffic light. It wasn’t the first time.
In 1972, journalist Martin Tolchin wrote about the political and logistical challenges of installing a traffic light at Watchung Plaza as a guest columnist for The New York Times–saying the issue eventually stalled when it was found out the construction of a light would cut off access to local merchants.
Martin Tolchin’s daughter Kay Tolchin said the phrase “We want peace in Vietnam and a traffic light in Watchung Plaza” was heard often in their household.
Over half a century later, the Vietnam War ended but there is still no traffic light at the intersection.
“No matter how slow the wheels of bureaucracy might turn, a half a century is almost unheard of. That’s truly bizarre. A traffic study could take time, but could it take 50 years?” Tolchin said.
“I think the whole intersection needs to be redesigned,” said John Laing, an organizer for The Bike Bus, a large group of students and parents who bike to school each week. “It needs to be done in a way to slow traffic down. It’s a major bike route for us and for other bikers who are going north-south through town. And those users need to be prioritized alongside cars.”
In a January 2023 announcement, County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo stated that plan designs for intersection improvements were being drawn and put in for bid with the New Jersey Department of Transportation(NJDOT).
According to Anthony Puglisi, spokesperson for DiVincenzo’s office, how long the NJDOT review will take is unknown. The original announcement is the only information that has been released regarding the project.
In May 2023 Councilor Peter Yacobellis, Councilor Lori Price Abrams and County Commissioner Brendan Gill announced the formation of a Vision Zero Task Force to look at traffic safety issues on a holistic level, with an aim to eliminate all traffic-related pedestrian and bicycle crashes by 2028.
The plan, said Gill, is “to look at these things not just from one intersection, or one corner or one street, but from the township perspective of how we institute a comprehensive plan that allows us to have the safest roadways and walkways as possible.”
Regarding the Watchung Plaza intersection specifically, Gill said “I know that the county and the municipality are working close together on what the solution would look like.”
“If you do put a traffic light there it needs the approval of the state. I’m waiting to see what those recommendations are from our county engineering department,” Gill added.
Once the design bids and recommendations come back and “assuming we can move through that process like we normally do, with expediency, it can happen quickly. It can be done,” Gill said.
That process, according to Gill’s office, is that Essex County submits a project for NJDOT approval, and after approval, the County sends it out for bids. A firm/contractor is selected and funding is appropriated by the Board of Commissioners. Then the actual construction takes place.
The New Jersey Department of Transportation provided this statement: “Essex County received approximately $9.8 million for Fiscal Year 2024 in County Aid, and they have the freedom to spend these funds on one project or many projects. The County has a deadline of December 1, 2023, to inform NJDOT of how they are choosing to spend their funds. Once NJDOT’s Division of Local Aid and Economic Development receives the County’s plans on how funding will be allocated, the Department will review the design plans that have been submitted. This review typically takes about 30 days.”
Genovese sold his shop in July, but is still following the issue and is frustrated by the lack of information. So is the mother who was struck in March 2022.
“Almost every morning when the crossing guard crosses us, he gets irritated and shakes his head because of the cars just totally speeding through,” she said. “And that’s with the crossing guard wearing neon orange and carrying a stop sign.”
“To be honest with you, I think a child would have to be hit and die in that spot for them to put a light on it,” she added.
Vision Zero Task Force: A Slow Start
Despite an announcement in May 2023, Montclair’s Vision Zero Task Force has yet to have its first meeting; residents at the last two council meetings have been critical of the delays and implored the council to take action to make streets safer.
At the Oct. 10 council meeting, Amy Veach said she learned by text of another accident at Mt. Hebron and Upper Mountain, an intersection that has a troubling history of accidents involving pedestrians, while she was sitting at the meeting.
“How many accidents have to happen before something gets done,” asked Veach, adding that the intersection is busy with both school children attending Bradford Elementary and commuters walking to the train station.
At the same meeting, Jessica Tillyer of Bike Bus Montclair questioned why the town was behind other Essex County towns and had not taken advantage of federal grant monies available for Safe Routes to Schools.
“How many more people need to die for change to be implemented?” asked Scott Keddy at Tuesday’s (10/24) council meeting. Keddy is part of Montclair Safer Streets, a group of residents who started a new petition calling for enforcement of traffic laws; lowering of speed limits; and empowering and funding “the efforts of the town’s Vision Zero task force with with action (not rhetoric).”
Keddy’s 12-year-old-daughter handed out this photo presentation to the council detailing a history of accidents around Montclair involving pedestrians, including eight accidents that took place just this month.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, Jason Gleason, executive director of Montclair Center BID, confirmed that Laura Torchio will serve as the chair of the 23-person Vision Zero Task Force and that a meeting of the task force was expected to take place later this week.
Torchio is a certified planner specializing in active transportation and on the board of Bike Walk Montclair. The BID is the contracting agent to bring Torchio in for phase one of the task force.
“I’m not going to take cover for the council or the township’s actions and bureaucracy,” said Gleason of the delays, adding that the town had multiple manager changes during the last few months. “We came to the table and wanted to offer some money and wanted to see action, so we have been waiting for it [the task force] to take place as well.”
Gleason said the BID wanted to help facilitate getting the task force off the ground, especially because he has witnessed a fatality as well as near misses every single day in Montclair’s downtown district.