Friday, July 31, 2009

Why the DOT's cars-on-the-sidewalk plan was approved, why it wasn't announced, and how safety has been improved

Yes, it really is kosher for the Department of Transportation (DOT) to approve temporary use of a sidewalk for vehicles, as it did for [updated] 12 weeks--beginning this week--on Pacific Street going east of Sixth Avenue in Prospect Heights, while utility work goes on nearby.

However, after inspecting the initial configuration of the site--perhaps in response to concerns raised online once Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn on Tuesday posted a photo of a potentially dangerous situation--the DOT took additional action to increase safety.

Indeed, as I commented Wednesday on Streetsblog, I walked by there that morning around 9 and a pedestrian--walking west, approaching Sixth Avenue--was smack in the middle of the sidewalk-turned-road, at approximately the location of the black car in the second photo. There was a uniformed traffic cop in the intersection helping steer traffic, but I didn't see (or hear) him motioning for the pedestrian to get out of the way. The pedestrian didn't look confused, but she sure wasn't aware of the change.

Changes made

DOT spokesman Scott Gastel responded on Wednesday:
We approved a plan at this location to permit two-way traffic using a portion of the sidewalk during sewer installation for approximately 12 weeks. This kind of arrangement is not unique and has been used on projects such as the Second Avenue Subway and on major projects on 34th Street in Queens or Richmond Terrace on Staten Island.

We inspected the location this morning and instructed the contractor to replace the wooden barrier with one made of concrete and to extend it in both directions while maintaining at least a five-foot-wide pedestrian walkway, and to install additional signs as was part of the original, approved plan. We will continue to monitor the area.


As the photo above shows, the pedestrian barrier now extends west to the light pole. The photo below right shows that an additional barrier has been set up at the southwest corner of Pacific Street and Sixth Avenue. (Photo above and photos below by Tracy Collins.) It's unclear, however, why the original, approved plan was not fully implemented--I haven't heard back yet from a query posed yesterday to Gastel.

Caught off-guard

However, it does seem that both DOT and the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the agency in charge of the project, were caught somewhat off-guard by an unexpected change in the utility work schedule.

As announced in an ESDC Construction Update for the weeks beginning July 6 and July 13, work related to the required Maintenance and Protection of Traffic (MPT) was to commence, but the MPT, as approved by the DOT, was only to include work on Sixth Avenue, with barricades installed to isolate the Chamber 4 (sewer) work from vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and the west lane of Sixth closed between Pacific and Dean streets.

No announcement was made in the Construction Update for the weeks beginning July 20 and July 27; it was issued a week before the DOT implemented the sidewalk-as-street change.

Shift in work causes changes

ESDC spokeswoman Elizabeth Mitchell explained:
As I believe you are aware, the Maintenance and Protection of Traffic (MPT) was installed pursuant to a plan that was approved by DOT. The recent shift to this current configuration was due to a field condition encountered during the construction of Chamber 4 – during the course of this work, the contractor came across private (ConEd) utilities that were not supposed to be in the area.

As a result, they shifted to Chamber 5 work, requiring the reconfiguration of the MPT. Given the real time nature of this, there was no way for it to be reported in the Construction update. The current configuration is expected to be in place for the next 2 weeks – but, note, this is subject to how the work progresses and conditions in the field.


I asked if the traffic changes were to last 12 weeks, as the DOT message seemed to indicate.

Her reponse:
The total timeframe for the construction/installation of Chambers 4 and 5 is 12 weeks. The current configuration of the MPT is estimated to be 2 weeks. This 2 weeks is within the 12 weeks.


Mitchell added:
Furthermore, inquiries were also made directly to the DOT and they requested that there be some modifications made to make it directionally clearer to pedestrians and motorists on where they needed to go in the intersection. This included signage, stripping of the crosswalk and installing barriers/bollards that clearly separated pedestrian and motorists. This has all been done.

Better process?

Given the consternation that ensued regarding an approved but somewhat alarming situation, the Construction Updates, issued every two weeks by the ESDC but prepared by developer Forest City Ratner, obviously can't suffice in all cases.

As pre-construction work and utility work proceeds--and, especially, if arena construction proceeds--it's hardly unlikely that similar situations will occur. Perhaps the ESDC could consider an additional layer of communication, whether via press release or even (!) a project blog, to ensure that community members get information even faster. After all, there is an ombudsman in place.

Indeed, as Collins notes in photo above right, even the new configuration has its flaws, given that the pedestrians in the background didn't seem to realize they were in the traffic lane.

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