2008-12-12 / School News

Parents And Teachers: Make Rockaway Freeway Safe

By Nicholas Briano

Principal Brian O'Connell along with teachers and parents are forced to stop traffic under Rockaway Freeway before and after school to allow students to cross safely. Principal Brian O'Connell along with teachers and parents are forced to stop traffic under Rockaway Freeway before and after school to allow students to cross safely. Each morning and afternoon, more than one-third of the Rockaway Park Middle/High School Scholars' Academy students, along with hundreds more from Beach Channel High School, located right across the once accident prone Rockaway Freeway, traverse the street to get to and from school.

The lack of proper markings and sidewalks under the elevated train structure often leave the kids no choice but to walk in the street, with cars speeding past them at more than 40 mph at times, causing parents and teachers to worry about the safety of their children and students.

Parents like Scholars' Academy mother of two and Scholars' Academy Leadership Team member, Francine Benjamin, say that the conditions under the elevated train at Rockaway Freeway and Beach 104 Street, next to the school, are too dangerous for kids to be crossing. Benjamin suggests that the school needs either crosswalks, traffic lights, improved sidewalks, crossing guards or perhaps, all the above.

"There is barely any sidewalk, so the kids have no barrier between them and the traffic as they walk in the street," Benjamin said. "Between Beach 102 Street and Beach 108 Street there is no light and by the time cars approach the area of the school they are going nearly 40 mph past students."

New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) representatives say, however, that a majority of necessary improvements have been made in the area to ensure the safety of students from all area schools.

"DOT performed a traffic study of the area," DOT spokesperson Scott Gastel said. "We installed school crossing signs and put markings on the pavement indicating a school crossing zone."

Gastel continued to say that a fence- like barrier was constructed down the center of Beach Channel Drive to prevent students of area schools from jaywalking, forcing them to use the designated crosswalks. DOT also narrowed Rockaway Freeway in 1998 to address the speeding issue that originally made it an accident-prone area. But the Scholars' Academy Leadership Team, a parent and teacher organization that aims to address issues in and around the school, says it is still too dangerous.

There is the issue of placing either crossing guards or a traffic light at the Freeway, which would give students the opportunity to safely cross the street. In the morning and afternoon Scholars' Academy principal Brian O'Connell and other staff members bring out traffic cones and hold up signs reading "slow." In addition, they frequently stop traffic to allow kids to cross the street.

According to the New York City Police Department, which employs the crossing guards, the guards are assigned to elementary schools first and are requested each year by the local precincts.

However, insufficient crossing guard recruitment is often an issue that handicaps the city, preventing the precincts from receiving necessary numbers of crossing guards each year. According to a City Council committee report, as of May 2007, there were 2,913 crossing guards employed throughout New York City with 520 working at schools in Queens.

Principal O'Connell says his top priority is the safety of the children and all Rockaway residents who cross the Freeway every day.

"As a resident, in addition to being principal, I am responsible for the well-being of the students," he said.

O'Connell continued to say that DOT has been helpful in the past and is grateful that the traffic light at Beach Channel Drive and Beach 104 Street was installed and a speed bump was raised on Beach 104 Street. He also acknowledged the benefit of a crossing guard, but realizes that recruitment and retention of crossing guards is an ongoing concern.

"The lack of sidewalk and the pillars from the elevated train block the view of oncoming traffic, which is an extremely dangerous situation when you have more than 250 kids crossing that street," he said.

The former traffic configurations of Rockaway Freeway led to a high number of accidents, which prompted DOT to address the traffic patterns in 1998. The agency reduced the Freeway from two lanes to one, removing the inside lane in each direction.

In addition, the speed limit was reduced to 25 mph.

Accidents since 1998 have been down nearly 50 percent, according to a 2007 DOT traffic study of the street. The leadership team, however, feels numerous actions by several city agencies are still needed to improve conditions even more.

Improvements they would like to see, in addition to the crossing guards along Rockaway Freeway, are designated crosswalks between Beach 102 and Beach 108 Streets, sufficient curbs and widened sidewalks, fencing or barriers to discourage jaywalking and the reconsideration of bringing the bus routes that normally travel along Rockaway Beach Boulevard, to the front of the school at dismissal times to provide school-side pick-ups and dropoffs. Another suggestion was to extend the Q35 from its terminus at Beach 116 Street to Beach 104 Street, which they say would reduce the need to cross Rockaway Freeway.

They would also like to see repairs and access reopened at the northern section of the Beach 105 Street train stop, which is in the MTA capital plans for 2009 that will repair most other stations along the peninsula.

The leadership team agrees that the city has improved several conditions around the school. However, they still feel these additional conditions under the Rockaway Freeway need to be addressed before anything tragic should happen to a student or pedestrian walking across the street.

"We need people to be aware of the conditions," Benjamin said. "The message has to get out there and if the community joins together and everyone calls 311 to voice their concern something will be done."

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