City ‘Ineffective’ On Scholars’ Traffic Problems
On any given chilly afternoon, it is the norm to see Mr. Brian O’Connell, Scholars’ Academy principal, on the crossroads of Beach 105 Street, directing student traffic across the Rockaway Freeway; carrying a traffic sign, wearing gloves and a pair of earmuffs to brave the weather. Over the years, a team of school personnel and Principal O’Connell have overseen this crossing of students from Beach 105 Street and Rockaway Freeway to Beach 104 Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, where public transportation is accessible. Traffic safety problems have made this crossing of students a disconcerting priority.
The school’s proximity to the Rockaway Freeway has prompted the necessity of dealing with the hazardous traffic complications caused by the freeway’s narrow layout, pillar created blindspots, a lack of sidewalks, and a complete lack of traffic safety devices such as a light or stop sign, and cross walk.
“Our school, unfortunately for us, is adjacent to the Rockaway Freeway, which is under an elevated trestle which once had two lanes going in each direction. The Department of Transportation’s lane reconfiguration of Rockaway Freeway took place several years ago, changing the roadway to one lane adjacent to the curb and a striped area adjacent to the middle of the roadway where the left lane in each direction was once located. To my knowledge, they did not heed the community board’s idea to shift the lanes to the middle of the roadway as opposed to being placed so close to the curb side where pedestrians walk.” said Mr. O’ Connell. “As of now, there are tiger stripes, or a striped area, adjacent to the pillars under the el that, to a degree, have become the unofficial designated walking areas for pedestrians, which is very dangerous” he added. The lack of sidewalks on the south side of the Rockaway Freeway and the inadequate (very narrow) sidewalks on the north side of Rockaway Freeway, also according to the principal, have created a dangerous site for two way pedestrian traffic from the Beach 105 Street subway station to Beach 102 Street.
The traffic and safety complications are numerous, including blind spots created by pillars under the el, falling debris from overhead construction of the el, constricted walking areas due to snow plowing, careless motorists, and “excessive ponding effect” caused by drain pipes under the el. During the warmer months, the drain pipes flow onto the street, creating huge puddles of water, or “ponding.” During the colder months, however, these ponds of water can freeze into black ice, a hazard for both driver and pedestrian.
Mr. Jospeh Lunati, head of the school’s athletic department and one of a team of staff members dedicated to the safety of students travelling to and from the school, witnesses these dangers every day during afterschool hours.
“I see cars not looking out for kids. Cars going really fast. Cars not stopping at stop signs right across the street,” said Mr. Lunati. “When we’re out there, the students are more cautious and follow the safety guidelines we recommend. We also remind to them to look before they step off of the curb. But if we’re not out there for any reason, say if an afterschool activity or a game ran late, the students run a risk. There are blind spots that they can’t see.”
The school, however, has not been mum about these safety issues. The school has contacted city officials including the DEP, the DSNY, the Parks Department, and the MTA, to gain their support in an attempt to redress all safety complications.
In 2006, Scholars’ Academy invited elected officials and city officials from agencies including the DOT, the MTA, NYPD, and the DOE to a Safety Summit. This summit discussed the dangers of crossing under the el and also safety proposals, among them the installation of more school zone signs, widening sidewalks, crosswalks, speed bumps, the installation of traffic devices at Beach 105 Street, crossing guards in the morning and the afternoon.
A recent effort was an interagency meeting hosted by the Scholars’ Academy Safety Committee on February 1. Agencies that sent representatives were the Department of Environmental Protection, the New York Department of Sanitation, NYC Park Supervisors, and the MTA. After the agencies toured the perimeter of the building, led by Mr. O’Connell, Building Manager Ray Velez, and school Dean Peter Foti, issues that were addressed included the constriction of pedestrian walkways posed by trash storage and snow plowing, as well as the absence of traffic lights on Beach 105 Street and the Rockaway Freeway.
As for the complications posed by snow plowing, the Parks Department agreed to remove snow from Seaside Avenue and the DEP agreed to oversee the issue within DEP property of Beach 104 Street and their section of the sidewalk along Rockaway Freeway between Beach 104 Street and Beach 105 Street. The DSNY agreed with Principal O’Connell that the only temporary solution to preventing snow plows from covering the miniscule 3 to 4-foot-wide sidewalk behind the school from Beach 104 Street to Beach 102 Street was the installation of jersey barriers. Jersey barriers, according to the principal, “would at least provide a common sense temporary solution that would both protect our students and pedestrians and widen the walking area along the north side of Rockaway Freeway from Beach 106 Street to Beach 102 Street.”
Long-term, however, according to Mr. O’ Connell, Scholars’ Academy is currently requesting a complete redesign of the road between Beach 102 to Beach 106 Streets for the installation of “adequate sidewalks.” The project entails the reconstruction of sidewalks eastbound and westbound along Rockaway Freeway from Beach 101 to Beach 106 Streets as well as the expansion of sidewalks on the north and south sides of the road, for greater safety. Netting to catch falling debris from overhead construction, speed bumps, jersey barriers parallel to the north side of the Freeway’s westbound lane from Beach 101 to Beach 106 Streets, and temporary speed limit signs in both directions, are also desired.
Within the Scholars’ Academy community, both parents and students are being encouraged to petition city officials for the improvement of the perimeter from Beach 102 to Beach 106 Street. The Scholars’Academy PTA, in particular, has been a prominent aid in the school’s campaign. “Our PTA is conducting an online survey to gather electronic signatures that will then be submitted to elected officials,” said the principal.
Over the years, the Department of Transportation invested in a signal at Beach 104 Street and Beach Channel Drive, installed sidewalks in front of the DEP facility, a reduced school speed zone of 20 mph when lights are flashing, and a speed bump in this area at Beach 104 Street between the Rockaway Freeway and Beach Channel Drive. Principal O’Connell stated, “It is clearly not enough, especially in seven years time. It took the Scholars’ Academy pressure to install the sidewalk adjacent to the DEP property. It took the Scholars’ Academy pressure to install the traffic light at Beach 104 and Beach Channel Drive (after two years of letter writing and an accident involving a vehicle carrying a pregnant woman with children in car seats and the side of one of our school buses at that location. Both airbags deployed in the vehicle that broadsided our bus, there was a huge EMS response complete with a helicopter, sending about 30 students to Peninsula General Hospital). The speed bump on Beach 104 was there prior to 2005, and the signs under the el that were installed were not installed in the appropriate locations, are not flashing or lighted, and are obscured by the pillars which compromise their visibility. Clearly, we are grateful for any effort to improve safety, but the truth cannot be denied, the effort from 2005-2012 has thus far fallen very short of demonstrating a sincere and legitimate concern for the safety of our students that have to cross the Rockaway Freeway.” Scholars’Academy has not given up trying to motivate city government, specifically the Department of Transportation, to make long overdue major changes to Rockaway Freeway in the name of student and pedestrian safety.
“People would like to see the department of transportation making the area safer. We have posted a video online that speaks volumes about this issue and anyone can see how dangerous this situation really is. Unfortunately at this point, our greatest fear is that someone will be injured, or worse, and then like we witnessed with the traffic light at Beach Channel Drive and Beach 104, something substantial will be done. I’m trying to stay optimistic that the community leaders and the agents of the taxpayers will pay some attention to this issue before it becomes a nightmare for some unfortunate person and family,” stated Mr. O’ Connell. “Frankly, a change like this should not take seven years, especially when it is a school that is involved.” To help the Scholars’ Academy PTA and Student Government move the Department of Transportation to prioritize this issue, please write the Mayor’s Office and Department of Transportation, and/or consider completing the survey at the following link: http://scholarsnyc.com/petition/