Saturday, April 20, 2024

Cars pass over a bridge completed last year on Walden Street near Richdale Avenue, an intersection called dangerous by residents and the city’s Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department.

Long-standing traffic issues sparked testy exchanges Monday between city councillors on one side and the city manager and director of the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department on the other, raising two larger issues:

First, the conundrum of relying on traffic data gathered by police when the presence of police inhibits bad driving; second, that, in the words of city councillor Marjorie Decker, “You have city councillors who don’t trust that your traffic department is paying the kind of attention it needs to … You have city council that for many years have felt like the traffic department is the most unresponsive department we have. That’s just fact. The majority of the council feels that way.”

Councillor Marjorie Decker was concerned most about Richdale Street and Walden Avenue, the spot where a bridge ends and neighbors cross to get to Henry’s, a small grocery store, although the speed of cars traveling much of Walden worried her as well; Craig Kelley was focused on Garfield Street and Massachusetts Avenue, another problematic crossing.

In addition to hearing from constituents about traffic fears at the intersections — in Decker’s case, going back almost four years — each had firsthand knowledge of the intersections; Decker lives at Richdale and Walden, while Kelley has children attending a school near Garfield Street.

“Time flies,” Decker said. “I would actually like to get some timeframes for when these will be implemented … what we have seen with certain recommendations the council has adopted and the traffic department has committed to, things can happen two years, three years down the line, and I would actually like to get some accountability.”

It became clear the councillors and city officials would not come to a quick agreement. When City Manager Robert W. Healy brought out Susan E. Clippinger, the department’s director, she told Decker the intersection was “operating quite well right now,” an assessment Decker rejected with simmering exasperation.

She asked about installing permanent barrel-like structures at the bridge to force drivers to slow, which was greeted blankly by Healy and Clippinger despite Decker’s insistence they’d discussed it before. And she reminded them of how hard she had to work to bring in a stop sign now endorsed by the traffic department.

Clippinger acknowledged Tuesday the intersection had long been a “concern.” But records showed two accidents last year, after the street reopened to through traffic after two years of bridge construction, and one accident each year back to 2006. (Decker said she had “witnessed several accidents” from her window and had begun agitating for a stop sign after a accident three years ago sent a woman — fortunately walking that day without her baby — to the hospital with severe injuries.)

There may be close calls as cars zip through, but “close calls are hard to track, because they’re not recorded,” Clippinger said. Short of painting “stop” on the asphalt, which will be done when weather improves, the department has reached the end of the traffic calming measures that can be taken there, Clippinger said. Raising a section of asphalt has been vetoed by the Fire Department, which uses Walden to get quickly to emergency calls throughout the city. A traffic light, although recommended by a civic engineer consulted by Decker, has been rejected because it would back traffic up all the way to Massachusetts Avenue. Rumble strips were rejected because the noise would disturb residents.

The remaining option from Clippinger’s perspective is to have police do periodic enforcement in the intersection.

But Kelley considered police enforcement of questionable value at Garfield and Massachusetts Avenue, where Clippinger confirmed “cars don’t do a very good job braking.” When Healy argued that police saw good compliance with traffic laws there, Kelley noted that people drive differently when they know police are watching. At Garfield and Massachusetts Avenue, police have done shifts in the middle of the intersection.

“You want it done undercover? I don’t know what you’re suggesting. A full-time officer at the intersection?” Healy asked Monday.

“The point behind traffic enforcement is to make people think, ‘Gee, maybe there’s an officer somewhere I can’t see, because he’s not standing in the middle of the intersection,’” Kelley said. “Then maybe they’ll pay more attention to people who just want to cross the intersection safely, and I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

“Where would you suggest the officer be?” Healey asked.

“I would be delighted to join you out there and we can talk about it,” Kelley said.

No meeting had been scheduled by Tuesday, but Clippinger said her department would continue to look at both intersections.

“We certainly would like to think we’re not as unresponsive as she’s indicated,” Clippinger said of Decker.