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Op-ed / Danger on local roads: Infrastructure just one problem

Published 2:43 pm, Wednesday, March 6, 2013
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We've got a serious problem with traffic on state roads in Westport, and it's high time we addressed it. One more death, one more seriously-injured person is simply not acceptable.

Last week, I attended a meeting at Town Hall which presented potential improvements to the intersection of Bayberry Lane and Easton Road (state Route 136). This intersection has been the scene of a good number of accidents -- thankfully, none fatal -- and countless near misses over the years. The town and the South Western Regional Planning Authority engaged in a study of the intersection, resulting in the recommendations presented.

Neighbors and affected drivers came out in force, overflowing the meeting room. Needless to say, they've been waiting for a solution. As much as I appreciated the work and thinking that went into the presentation, I was underwhelmed by the proposed alternatives and disheartened by the long road ahead before any changes can be made.

To me, the answer is simple: Commit to a four-way stop, add some traffic-calming techniques used successfully in other traffic settings and, perhaps, some improvements in sightlines and grading. But certainly not the roundabout or major reconfiguring of the intersection suggested by the study. The most important thing we can do is to take action quickly to avoid a future calamity.

Speaking of calamities, Westport was the scene of another Post Road fatality last week when a pedestrian was stuck while crossing the road near Shake Shack. It seems clear that the traffic solution in place near Shake Shack is inadequate and needs to be fixed immediately. But that's hardly the only intersection on the Post Road where accidents can happen; there's Turkey Hill Road, Sylvan Road and intersections downtown as well. It's indicative of a growing problem which is not specific to the configuration of any one intersection.

We, as a community, have to face this problem, brought on by changes in the way we drive, use our smartphones and engage in the world around us. Last week it was a 68 year old man who was killed, but we all know of recent incidents in which children and others were injured by inattentive drivers.

So what can we do? Yes, we need to make sure to walk in the crosswalks provided and ride our bikes in accordance with the law. Of course we have to stop texting on our phones while we're driving and look out for pedestrians and bicyclists. Police enforcement of traffic speeds and laws is important, but there's no way the police can spend all their time monitoring traffic all over town.

So we must also insist on finding better solutions to traffic and speeding in town. Route 136 and the Post Road can't be changed without state cooperation, but that's no excuse for not pushing hard for change. As I've mentioned, there are traffic-calming techniques in use in other municipalities -- such as textured pavement or cross-hatched painted caution lines -- which should be considered for Westport. There are also studies which show the benefits of "extended yellows" or "four-way red" lights at intersections. We may need to relocate some crosswalks and consider adding lights to stop traffic for pedestrians. The sooner we begin assessing real solutions, the sooner we can put them in place.

As we all resolve to be better drivers, pedestrians, and bike riders, let us also resolve to be better citizens and neighbors by insisting on a municipal initiative to address both the specific spots where accidents seem likely to occur and a more general assessment of traffic safety in Westport.

As a member of the state legislature and its Transportation Committee, I pledge to work with the Connecticut Department of Transportation and town officials to tackle the challenge we face as a community.

Jonathan Steinberg, a Westport Democrat, is the state representative for the 136th District.