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Northampton hopes to improve crosswalk safety

The city began safety improvements Thursday at this crosswalk on New South Street in Northampton, a month after a 35-year-old doctor was struck while crossing the busy street and later died of his injuries.

The city began safety improvements Thursday at this crosswalk on New South Street in Northampton, a month after a 35-year-old doctor was struck while crossing the busy street and later died of his injuries. Purchase photo reprints »

Mayor David J. Narkewicz announced three immediate improvements city officials hope will improve safety and visibility at the crosswalk, including installation of a “rapid-flash” pedestrian beacon similar to one on Conz Street.

Other improvements involve the Department of Public Works temporarily installing orange barrels near to the crosswalk in the northbound lane of New South. The barrels are designed to prevent vehicles from passing on the right near the crosswalk.

Finally, the city removed one parking space next to the crosswalk in the southbound lane to increase visibility for drivers and pedestrians. Parking enforcement officers on Thursday placed a no-parking bag over the metered spot. The bag will remain there until the meter and space markings can be physically removed.

Narkewicz said the city has been focused for some time on trying to improve safety around the intersection of New South Street, Main Street and State Street, which is not far from the crosswalk. The crosswalk is now part of that larger effort.

“This was a tragedy, and the city is responding with additional measures to improve visibility and safety,” Narkewicz said.

The critical part of the improvements are the flashing lights. City officials petitioned the state for permission to use Chapter 90 highway money to buy and install a beacon that alerts drivers to the presence of pedestrians in the crosswalk through both auto-detection and manual activation.

The city is exploring a way to fast-track the beacon through its procurement process, Narkewicz said.

As for the barrels, the mayor said the DPW and police will monitor the crossing to see if the experiment helps alleviate the problem and may work the concept into a more permanent solution.

Most agree the problem at the crosswalk involves traffic heading north toward Main Street where the road gets wider and becomes two lanes. Cars heading downtown move into the right lane just before the crosswalk, then have trouble seeing and reacting if a pedestrian is crossing.

The road will continue to open up to two lanes of traffic after the crosswalk for northbound vehicles.

Ward 4 City Councilor Pamela C. Schwartz said she was thrilled with the proposed improvements, calling the process a great demonstration of city leadership and responsiveness to a concern for many of her constituents.

She said the improvements “can only help.”

“It is an inherently challenging intersection, and everything we can do to increase visibility makes the hazards less,” she said.

A week ago, Schwartz presented the Transportation and Parking Commission with emails from 50 residents who expressed concern about the crosswalk and offered solutions. She has campaigned for quick action since the death of Pallav K. Parakh, a Hatfield resident who was struck by a truck while using the crosswalk shortly before 5 p.m. on Halloween. Parakh died in hospital 11 days later.

“The least we can ask of ourselves as a community and as a city is to respond, and I’m pleased we did,” Schwartz said Thursday.

Narkewicz said a small group of officials came up with the short-term recommendations after evaluating the crosswalk in recent weeks. He said there was some debate about whether to eliminate the crossing, but that idea didn’t make sense given that people use it to access the west side of Pulaski Park and it is a common route used by residents and people who work at Old Street Commons.

“It’s become a really established crossing and pathway for people,” Narkewicz said. “I don’t think eliminating the crosswalk would have been a very satisfying response.”

Ward 7 City Councilor Eugene A. Tacy would like to see the crosswalk “grinded down” and eliminated, though he believes the proposed improvements will help improve safety.

“It’s a mid-block crosswalk; it’s dangerous,” said Tacy, who participated in the discussion as chairman of the Transportation and Parking Commission.

The city attempted to address the crosswalk in a $90,000 project, completed this fall, to make a 1.2-mile stretch of South Street safer by bringing it in line with other crosswalks in the city. That meant making it wider and including a “ladder” pattern, as well as pavement and bike lane markings.

Narkewicz said the additional improvements the city has planned for the crosswalk are a logical extension of that project, a point he made when lobbying the state for permission to spend $20,000 for immediate improvements at the crossing.

While these solutions are designed as a short-term fix, Narkewicz this week also inked a contract with transportation consultants to study the crossing as part of the overall redesign of the nearby intersection of New South, Main and State streets.

During busy times, traffic often backs up on New South Street in both directions. Some 16,000 vehicles use the road daily.

There have been 21 motor vehicle accidents at the crosswalk since January 2002, four of which involved a pedestrian, according to police.

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