The plan for now: Make two turns at Watchung Plaza right-hand only
Montclair will soon be asking Essex County to approve a change in traffic flow at the intersections of Watchung Plaza road, Watchung Avenue and Park Street.
The neighborhood is home to a busy shopping area and park and is heavily traveled by store patrons as well as students attending nearby Montclair High School and Watchung School.
In an effort to calm traffic in the area, which has seen numerous accidents and near-misses, the Township Council introduced an ordinance that would allow only right-hand turns for motorists traveling north on the one-way Watchung Plaza road onto Watchung Avenue.
Left-hand turns onto Watchung Avenue and crossing the intersection onto Park Street would be prohibited. Council members Peter Yacobellis, Bill Hurlock and Robin Schlager introduced the ordinance on April 5.
The council is also expected to introduce another ordinance, on April 19, that would allow motorists driving south on Park Street to make only right-hand turns onto Watchung Avenue.
There are currently only two stop signs in the area, on Watchung Plaza road at Watchung Avenue and on Park Street at Watchung Avenue.
Four crashes have been reported at the intersection so far in 2022, including one involving a mother and child on March 14. 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.
As Watchung Avenue is a county-owned road, on March 1 the Township Council passed a resolution calling on Essex County to conduct a traffic study.
“We are not looking to do the standard run-of-the-mill traffic study here,” Yacobellis said. “This has been done before, as recently as just a couple of years ago, and slight changes, such as blinking crosswalk signs, were added.
“We’re looking to do an engineering study to revisit the traffic patterns and circulation of this intersection entirely with what we hope would result in a new design.”
Long-standing council member Bob Russo said that attempts to get traffic lights at the intersection have failed twice. He said that just last week he helped a 10-year-old boy who had trouble getting across the street.
Prohibiting left-hand turns is a good start, Yacobellis said, but he suggested that the council leave it up to the professionals for long-term solutions. Mayor Sean Spiller said that county and Montclair officials and engineers have been in discussion and agreed that a study should be “expedited.” Yacobellis said that Montclair’s engineer, Nelgia, would most likely be conducting the study in order to “get it done more quickly.”
But County Communications Director Anthony Puglisi said on April 13 that the county engineering division has made a funding request to the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority to perform a Road Safety Audit at the intersection and will provide a full evaluation.
The council’s resolution also states that the study should place extra weight on safety precautions for pedestrians, cyclists, seniors and people with disabilities.
Last month Robert Genovese, who owns Local Coffee at the intersection of Watchung Avenue and Watchung Plaza and has “a front-row seat to the extremely dangerous intersection,” started a petition asking that the study be expedited. As of April 8 it had garnered 981 signatures. He has gathered articles going back 50 years that refer to the intersection as dangerous and calling for traffic designs.
“Fifty years later, with the increase in population and vehicular traffic it doesn’t seem that anything has been done to address these issues,” he told the council on April 5.
The mother who was walking her child to school and was hit on March 14 called into the council describing how she was struck as she stepped into the crosswalk. Her daughter was not hit, and she walked away from the impact.
“I did get knocked down. I don’t think the driver tried to be negligent. He had to look in six other directions and proceed when he thought it was safe. But it wasn’t,” she said.
Acting police Lt. Terence Turner said the woman was hit as she was attempting to cross Park Street from the west. She saw a gray Subaru heading south on Park Street, stopped at a stop sign where it meets Watchung Avenue.
The driver looked to his right, and then the woman and her daughter stepped into the crosswalk to head east across Park Street, Turner said. The Subaru then drove forward, striking the woman, and both she and her daughter fell, he said.
The mother didn’t report any injuries, Turner said. The driver stopped to attend to the mother and child, police said.
The no-left-hand-turn from Watchung Plaza ordinance will have one reading on April 19. The council is expected to introduce the no-left-hand turn onto Watchung Avenue from Park Street at that meeting as well. It will need a second reading. Both then have to be sent to the county for final approval of the signage.
A resolution prohibiting left turns heading eastbound from Watchung Avenue onto Park Street will be on the Board of Commissioners agenda on April 20, Puglisi said.
"Assuming they adopt the resolution that night, the appropriate signage will be installed after that," Puglisi said.
In the meantime, Russo called for more police or crossing guards at the intersection to aid in the safety of pedestrians.