Route 7 safety comes under scrutiny
Published 10:47 pm, Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Streetlights, sidewalks and crosswalks were nixed nearly a decade ago when the Route 7 South project was completed in New Milford.
Partly due to opposition from property owners along the busy roadway, such possible safety measures found the proverbial cutting room floor when Route 7 was widened to four lanes.
A series of pedestrian accidents along the 5.5-mile stretch, including two deaths, has raised the question of whether those features are needed.
The latest pedestrian death was Joseph Portunato, 24, who was crossing Route 7 near Pickett District Road on Aug. 15 at about 11:26 p.m.
Portunato was pronounced dead at the scene. The accident remains under investigation.
“This seems to be happening more and more ever since they expanded the road,” said New Milford resident Dennis Peppe. “I’ve sent a letter inquiring about the lack of proper lighting and sidewalks to the local and state level. I got a lot of double talk.”
The widening of Route 7 South in New Milford to four lanes from Veterans Memorial Bridge to the Brookfield town line was completed in 2008.
The construction raised a great deal of concern for New Milford residents about the amount of private property bordering the route that would be taken by the state, and what having four lanes would mean for traffic safety and business access.
“The consensus in the late 1990s when the project was being designed was that residents of New Milford wanted the (state Department of Transportation) DOT to minimize the right of way impacts,” said Kevin Nursick, a DOT spokesman. “In light of that, it was decided not to include sidewalks in the project. It would have been counter to local wishes to take any more land by eminent domain.”
“Our charge was to minimize the taking of private land by the DOT,” Raymondsaid. “We spent a lot of time on this and, in the end, did minimize the taking. But I don’t remember any discussion about sidewalks.
“It was never part of our charge. Now we’re stuck with what we have,” he added. “You take your life in your hands walking along Route 7. It’s not conducive to pedestrians, but there’s a lot of people who walk it.”
As late as 2008, the DOT policy was to not participate in installing new sidewalks with road construction, according to Mike Zarba, New Milford’s director of public works.
That policy was changed around 2011, Zarba said, and now 10 percent of new road construction funding is allocated for pedestrian and bicycle use of the roadway.
Not including streetlights along the widened Route 7 was a decision reached by the DOT based on a roadway illumination study conducted by the department’s Office of Traffic Engineering.
That study found the “illumination was not warranted,” based on Federal Highway Administration criteria, Nursick said.
Looking at data from a three-year period ending Dec. 31, 2013, the DOT determined the criteria for state participation in installing lighting was not met, both Chapin and Nursick report.
“After Mr. Peppe contacted us, we shared his concerns with the DOT,” Chapin said. “I will seek answers to what the federal criteria was and if it was up to date. It seems prudent for the DOT to re-examine the issue as soon as practicable, given the ongoing accidents. I will encourage them to take another look.”
The majority of pedestrian strikes by vehicles along that stretch have been during periods of darkness or twilight.
Bruno Morini, 89, was killed in December 2009 while crossing Route 7 from the Willow Springs condominium complex at about 4:58 p.m.
Leslie Parzuchowski, 48, was critically injured in February 2012 in the same area after exiting a HART bus and crossing the road just before 7 a.m. She was not at a designated bus stop when the driver let her exit the bus, according to court records.
In January 2014, a man wearing dark clothing was struck at 5:11 p.m. and sustained minor injuries while crossing Route 7 near Pickett District Road.
And in November 2014, at about 6:38 p.m., two women were struck crossing to catch a HART bus after work near Sunny Valley Road’s south entrance.
One of those women, Elsa Aucay, 21, received critical injuries. The other woman, 51, sustained serious injuries.
A co-worker of the two women said they had crossed Route 7 every day to catch a bus home from work at Burger King.
“I’ve had to cross that road multiple times and it is just a horrible road to cross,” said Josyln Kalivas, the co-worker. “It’s not even the people that are driving, it’s the amount of traffic on that road.”
“Seeing that these pedestrian accidents are scattered, it is not indicative of a specific location where a facility change could address the issue,” Nursick said.
“There is no pattern other than the fact that they occurred on Route 7. We look for patterns or trends in crash data that indicate some type of condition that may be correctable or improved upon by infrastructure change.”
Nursick said it is difficult to initiate a project that will address “reckless behavior by pedestrians or cyclists who are not fundamentally following the rules of the road.”
DOT records indicate the pedestrians were at fault in the majority of the Route 7 strikes, he said. It was not clear in one incident, he said.
“There is much more to safety on the roadways than road design and amenities,” Nursick said. “The DOT has a responsibility to provide safe infrastructure. But all three — pedestrians/cyclists, motorists and the DOT — have to work together to assure safety.”
Nursick added, on “secondary state roads” where the DOT does not install streetlights, the town is the agency to install them.
Not so, Zarba argues.
“I completely disagree with their determination about the need for lighting,” Zarba said. “We have advocated through our legislators that sidewalks and lighting is needed along that stretch. Our role is to petition the state to do its part.
“It doesn’t become our responsibility to install lights,” he said. “Not only that, if the DOT determined lighting is not needed, it would never sign off on a town project to put lights in.”