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Editorial: Worthwhile effort to slow Bridge Road traffic in Northampton begins at last

Government can move like molasses, and it has felt that way for people who live around the JFK Middle School in Northampton.But after months of feeling ignored by city officials, homeowners are optimistic their crusade to slow traffic along a busy stretch of Bridge Road between Route 9 and Arcanum Field at North Maple Street will advance.

On Monday, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission is expected to install a traffic counter in the area as part of a larger study to gauge the problem and help the city come up with solutions, if warranted.

This is a good step and it should not have taken city officials nearly an entire school year to formally respond to residents’ concerns.

When dozens of homeowners and supporters of JFK’s parent teacher organization began sounding an alarm last June about their safety and that of children, action should have been more swift.

We understand the city must put all traffic-calming requests from neighborhoods through its application process, which weighs the merits of action and ranks projects. We also know that winter naturally causes a delay in a community’s ability to conduct proper traffic studies.

But in this case, we wonder whether the city moved quickly enough to examine dangers along the busy road that generates some 12,000 trips a day. When residents complain that drivers fail to stop at crosswalks, that should be a red flag to city officials. Just last year, a man was struck and killed by a car as he used a South Street crosswalk.

Instead, the neighborhood group did much of the legwork, contacting officials from the state Department of Transportation to ask about speed limits in school zones and reaching out to the PVPC for help. Kudos to the group for its persistence.

Now it’s the city’s turn to take the lead. Thankfully, it appears to be doing that.

The Transportation and Parking Commission is expected to send a letter to Mayor David J. Narkewicz this week asking him to formally request a PVPC study. A traffic counter will be installed for one week beginning Monday.

This is a crucial step. Data, not emotion, must drive the decision-making process. The study will record how many vehicles use the road, how fast they go and what type they are. Details of the study were being ironed out this week, but the city is also requesting the PVPC weigh in with recommendations about whether a pedestrian-only, push-button signal should be installed at an existing crosswalk at Bridge and Beech Street. This seems like a wise solution, if traffic experts agree.

It’s also encouraging that the city will examine whether to reduce the speed limit during school hours to 20 mph from 35 mph. For years, the school did not qualify for a special speed limit zone because its students were not young enough. But a change in state law allows communities to impose the lower speed limit near schools with students in ninth grade and younger. The reduced school zone may not be as effective as residents believe given that state law dictates that such zones are only allowed within 300 feet of a school and are to be used only during school hours. Even so, the more flashing lights and warnings the better.

The traffic study will also analyze the percentage of large trucks using Bridge Road. Some neighbors would like to see truckers stay off the road as they enter or leave the city, but this seems unreasonable. Truck drivers should be advised to slow down, to heed crosswalks and to avoid using loud jake brakes to slow down, especially late at night. But closing the road to truck traffic would only push it into downtown via Route 9.

Coming up with measures to slow these trucks and other vehicles is good for all involved.

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