Pedestrians are being hit by cars on Main Street in New Paltz in much higher numbers recently, more than quadrupling in just two years, according to data presented to the New Paltz Village Board last week by Lieutenant Robert Lucchesi of the town police force.
(Between that meeting and when this article was written, another pedestrian was struck by a car.)
Lucchesi said that the data, which lump bicyclists in with walkers, show that 21 were struck in 2019, up from 11 in 2018 and only four the year before that. Local officials anticipate pedestrian traffic on Main Street could very well increase this year as the Empire State Trail, a pedestrian and bike trail linking New York City to Buffalo that opened last year, becomes more popular. The official route splits bicyclists off to follow Henry W. Dubois Drive as they ride between the Thruway and the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, while those on foot walk down a road that’s become markedly more dangerous to their safety.
The village is seeking help with the state Department of Transportation (DOT) in creating more crosswalks, a school-zone designation for the middle school and a lower speed limit. Rogers characterized a recent meeting with state officials as “not terribly encouraging.” Village officials were told their request for more crosswalks would be denied, but they plan to make it anyway, with county officials promising to do camera work to bolster the case.
Lucchesi offered something of an apology for drivers who strike pedestrians, noting that it can be “difficult to see anybody” under conditions when glare is a factor, such as after rain. Trustee William Wheeler Murray suggested that when visibility is low, it’s time to slow down or avoid driving. Deputy Mayor KT Tobin agreed that many of the crashes occur in early evening, but Rogers thinks distracted driving is also a factor. The lieutenant said that the interplay there is “unknown,” but Tobin disagreed, asserting that the research is compelling.
Trustees see the DOT’s attitude as contradicting the state’s Complete Streets law. The DOT website defines a Complete Street as “a roadway planned and designed to consider the safe, convenient access and mobility of all roadway users of all ages and abilities. This includes pedestrians, bicyclists, public transportation riders and motorists; it includes children, the elderly and persons with disabilities.” Route 299 is a state road, meaning responsibility for implementing the law falls to DOT personnel, who in addition to overseeing repairs and design, also regulate signage, speed limits and crosswalks along the stretch that ends at the intersection with Chestnut Street.
Trustees believe if there were more crosswalks, there would be a greater likelihood they’d be used. Rogers thinks that educating drivers is at least as important as training pedestrians, since “we’re trying to encourage people to walk more.”
That effort supports another of Governor Cuomo’s initiatives, that of sharply reducing carbon-equivalent emissions in the state. The irony of a state program being undermined by the decisions of state employees is not lost upon New Paltz officials. “How do we relay that message to DOT?” Rogers wondered at one point.
Other trustees are feeling much the same. Murray found the increase in crashes “very distressing,” and Michele Zipp said that the DOT stance was “frankly, insulting.”
Speed limit changes are also subject to state approval. The standard speed limit inside villages is set at 30 mph by state law and trustees are closely watching an effort to get that lowered to 25. A number of requests to reduce speed limits have been made by village and town officials in recent years, but none have ever been approved. The rationale that’s been described by Neil Bettez, the town supervisor, is that if the average vehicle speed is higher than the posted limit, lowering it will not be considered.
Tobin, lamenting what she sees as a desire to “move vehicles faster,” pointed out that built environment changes behavior. All of their desired changes would support pedestrian safety by altering behavior of either pedestrians or drivers.
It doesn’t seem like any planning went into managing the impacts of the Empire State Trail, Rogers believes. What’s needed are ways to manage conditions of poor visibility and increasing users, but rather than add more crosswalks to aid in safely getting people across the road without walking a quarter mile or more out of the way, state officials seem to instead make conditions less safe with their decisions.
Trustees say the lack of school zone at the middle school, which would lower the speed limit, is another example of an unsafe situation. Rogers says he was told a school zone designation isn’t necessary because there is a traffic light at that corner. At the same time, there’s also a crosswalk from the school across South Manheim Boulevard near La Bella Pizza Bistro, not at all close to a light. It’s also on a state road, and renovations to the school have left it poorly placed. The barrier to relocating it, according to the mayor, is paying for the curb cut that’s required for wheelchair access.
While data are being gathered to bolster arguments, trustees are also asking town council members to join with them by requesting that the speed limit on 299 past the village line be reduced from 35 mph to 30, or even 25.
Board member Alexandra Wojcik suggested seeking out alliances with leaders of other communities that play host to the trail or to SUNY campuses. Rogers suggested asking college officials if they could use their influence, and also noted that Jen Metzger, the state senator, had similar conversations with DOT staffers as a town board member in Rosendale.