Study recommends steps to improve safety on Post Road in Westport
After 15 years of watching the intersection of Post Road West, Riverside Avenue and Wilton Road from his antiques store window at 18 Riverside Ave., Mandarin Collection owner C.C. Wong can easily explain the chaotic choreography of vehicles at the junction.
"Watch the one who's waiting to make the left turn. He's foaming at the mouth," Wong said as he stood on the southwest corner of the intersection during a short break Wednesday afternoon.
He pointed toward the left turn lane of the westbound side of Post Road West, where a Honda CR-V inched ahead, waiting for an opening in the oncoming traffic to turn left onto Riverside Avenue.
The driver could not find a gap until the light turned red, and then whipped left across the intersection before the vehicles on Riverside Avenue granted a green light could move.
"What happens when the light starts to turn red, and they have already waited in a seven-car line? They are going to ignore it," Wong said, as a couple of drivers waiting on Wilton Road honked at a Volkswagen Passat trying to turn left onto Post Road West. "People become animals at this intersection."
Long considered by Wong and other downtown merchants, as well as many town officials, as one of the most disorderly and dangerous intersections in town, the Post Road West-Riverside Avenue junction came under renewed scrutiny in recent weeks during the Planning and Zoning Commission's review of a site plan for a new office center at the Post Road West landmark National Hall.
While several commissioners expressed concerns in hearings about the project's impact on vehicle volume at the junction, the commission eventually accepted arguments made by representatives of the applicant, the Norwalk-based commercial real estate firm Greenfield Partners, that traffic generated by its new headquarters at National Hall would not overburden the Post Road West-Riverside Avenue-Wilton Road intersection.
Others are also closely watching the intersection. It was examined as part of a new bike and pedestrian safety study released this week by the South Western Regional Planning Agency of eight busy road corridors in Fairfield County.
Two sections of U.S. Route 1, or the Post Road, in Westport are reviewed in the study -- a 0.6-mile stretch, running through the town center that extends from the Post Road-Riverside Avenue-Wilton Road intersection to the Post Road's meeting point with Compo Road, and a 0.6 mile-tract of the road, between its intersections with Maple Avenue and Bulkley Avenue.
"The corridors highlighted in this report have the poorest pedestrian and bicycle safety records of any state highways in the region and serve a diverse mix of land uses that generate high levels of activity," the SWRPA study reports.
From 2006 to 2008, seven pedestrian injuries and one cyclist injury occurred in the downtown stretch of the Post Road, including one pedestrian injury at the Post Road West-Riverside Avenue junction, according to state Department of Transportation data used in the SWRPA study.
In the Maple Avenue-Bulkley Avenue section, four pedestrians and one cyclist were injured during the same period.
"Both of those corridors in Westport were identified as having high rates of bicycle and pedestrian accidents," said Alex Karman, a senior transportation planner at SWRPA. "We wanted to look at those areas and see if there was anything that could be done to improve safety that was quick and cheap."
Pedestrian safety accommodations at the Post Road West-Riverside Avenue crossroads are basic. The four-way intersection has only one push button for pedestrians, serving the Post Road West leg extending east across the Saugatuck River. But the intersection is devoid of pedestrian signal boxes and also lacks a crosswalk across its Post Road West leg that extends west toward the town line with Norwalk.
The SWRPA study recommends the installation of pedestrian signals and push buttons for the crossing of all legs at the Post Road West-Riverside Avenue-Wilton Road intersection. To accompany that new infrastructure, the study proposes the redesign of the intersection's traffic signal to create an "exclusive" pedestrian phase, which would be facilitated by four coinciding red lights. SWRPA also suggests reducing the curb radius for vehicles turning right onto Post Road West from Riverside Avenue.
Wong expressed concern that adding new pedestrian lights could exacerbate congestion at the intersection, and said he would prefer the town deploy a police officer to direct traffic at the junction.
"It's definitely a risky intersection," he said Wednesday afternoon after he negotiated the junction's crosswalk on Riverside Avenue following a trip to Art's Deli on Post Road West.
"You think everybody's stopped, but then these guys come," he added, gesturing toward cars turning left from Post Road West onto Riverside Avenue. "You definitely have to keep your wits about you."
Other steps for downtown safety
SWRPA also offers several proposals for improving pedestrian and cyclist safety in the section of downtown Westport to the east of the Saugatuck River. The study envisions, for instance, several new signalized crosswalks as well as new curb extensions on Post Road East adjacent to and near the current site of the Westport Weston Family Y at 59 Post Road East. To improve safety for cyclists, it suggests installing "sharrows," or shared-lane pavement markings, and bicycle signage in the lower-speed section of the Post Road running through the town center.
SWRPA also encourages town and state officials to "work with property owners to add planter boxes, bollards, curb stops or other markers to provide a greater level of pedestrian comfort by defining the space for pedestrians and guiding vehicles to correct driveway locations." Related to the latter recommendation, the study identifies the northbound stretch of Post Road East between the Myrtle Avenue-Imperial Avenue and Compo Road intersections as a "particular area of concern." A New Milford woman suffered a leg injury in January when she was struck by an SUV in that section of Post Road East near the Playhouse Square shopping center. The woman was cited by police for not using a crosswalk.
`Minimal consideration' of pedestrians, cyclists
The stretch of Post Road between its intersections with Maple Avenue and Bulkley Avenue is arguably one of the most treacherous stretches of the road in Westport for pedestrians.
Westport resident William Ford died in December 2008 after he was struck in a crosswalk that links the Sasco Creek affordable housing development and Lansdowne Condominiums.
Almost two years later, another town resident, Sharon Broecking, was killed when she was hit by a car while she traversed the crosswalk at the intersection of Post Road East and Westfair Drive near the Super Stop & Shop grocery store.
SWRPA's study characterizes development in this portion of the Post Road in Westport as having "minimal consideration of non-motorized travelers in both the public right-of-way and on adjacent private properties."
As a result, creating a safe environment for pedestrians and cyclists in the Maple Avenue-Bulkley Avenue corridor could prove more challenging compared to pursuing that goal in the town center.
Reconfiguring this corridor to become truly safe and accessible for all transportation system users will require long-term planning and zoning changes that encourage denser, mixed-use development that is more conducive to pedestrian activity as well as redesigning the roadway section within the right-of-way to prioritize pedestrians and bicycles, the study said.
SWRPA, nevertheless, makes a number of recommendations for the Bulkley Avenue-Maple Avenue section. It advocates efforts to "consolidate driveway access where possible to reduce the number of conflict areas with pedestrians."
It also suggests that town and state officials "consider" redesigning the Post Road-Bulkley Avenue intersection, a reconfiguration that could include realigning the Bulkley Avenue legs at the junction.
In addition, the study recommends building sidewalks in areas missing them between the Maple Avenue and Bulkley Avenue intersections.
In January, Westport town officials, including First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, Police Chief Dale Call and Public Works Director Steve Edwards, met with DOT officials to discuss the possibility of installing a new crosswalk at the intersection to link the Mercury Price Cutter gas station on the south side of Post Road East to an office complex on the other side.
Westport state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a member of the state General Assembly's Transportation Committee, described the SWRPA study as a "good step." He advocated as well for town and state officials to consider customized solutions for improving pedestrian and bike safety at other Post Road intersections in Westport not included in the study.
But he pondered the extent of the impact of such infrastructure changes to protect pedestrians and cyclists without an accompanying commitment to safety by motorists.
"What are we really doing to get people to slow down?" he asked "I don't know if you're really going to accomplish that much if you don't change their behavior."
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