BY ERIN ROLL and LINDA MOSS
The township has asked PSE&G to upgrade the lighting at the intersection where a Montclair State University faculty member was struck by a vehicle and sustained fatal injuries, according to the utility.
“We are working to facilitate that request as quickly as possible,” Brooke Houston, a PSE&G spokesperson, said this week, of the intersection of Grove Street and Chester Road.
The township has apparently taken the safety measure in the wake of the death of Mary DeFilippis, 73, who was killed last Wednesday night, June 7, when she was hit while crossing Grove Street at Chester shortly after 9 while on her evening walk. Township officials declined to comment, saying that the incident was still under active investigation.
DeFilippis’ death has renewed discussions in Montclair about Grove Street, an Essex County road, its hazards and who is responsible for making it safer.
Some residents are asking whether the death could have been prevented if their ongoing complaints and concerns about the street had been addressed by officials. And it’s debatable whose duty it should be — local officials or county officials, or both. It remains to be seen if safety hazards on county roads will be addressed in a Safe Streets study that Montclair, working with a consultant, is in the process of completing. The first draft of the study is done, with a final reported expected by the end of June, according to Township Engineer Kimberli Craft.
For some, last week’s incident is tragic proof that lighting along Grove Street is inadequate at night. Many also say that drivers often speed down the roadway, unchecked by police. DeFilippis was taking her usual evening walk and was not far from Carolin Road, where she resided with her husband, when the accident took place.
Township police and the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office are handling the probe, which will determine if any charges will be brought against the driver, a 60-year-old Bloomfield woman, who struck DeFilippis.
Her death has also raised pedestrian-safety complaints about other county roads that traverse Montclair, not only Grove Street but also Bloomfield Avenue and Valley Road.
At least one former township official who has championed pedestrian and bicyclist safety in Montclair spoke out, laying blame squarely with the county.
“At some point you have to ask yourself are these accidents?” said Jerry Fried, a former mayor. “It’s a public safety issue, that’s what it comes down to. And that’s the responsibility of our county government, to protect us.”
Fried, an avid bicyclist, worked hard on traffic safety issues when he was mayor, and Montclair was the first place in New Jersey to implement a complete-streets safety policy. Roughly 10 years ago, Fried said, Craft drafted a safety plan for Grove Street, involving its multi-use shoulders for pedestrians and bicyclists. But her plan was ultimately “watered down by the county engineer,” according to Fried.
“Particularly at this time, where there is much more demand for accountability in government at all levels particularly since the election, I think it’s important to ascribe responsibility for pedestrian injuries and fatalities, particularly when they happen on county property,” Fried said. “If you look at crash data, you’ll notice that most of the crashes with injuries and fatalities happen on county roads.”
Said Fried, “These are not accidents. They are public safety hazards that have not been adequately addressed by the county engineering department.”
Like township officials, Anthony Puglisi, spokesman for Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr.; and Joyce Goldman, DiVincenzo’s constituent services director, also declined to comment, citing the active investigation. Freeholder Vice President-at-Large Brendan Gill, a Montclair resident, also declined to comment.
As to lighting local roads, Houston said, “The municipality or county determines the number and placement of street lamps. PSE&G’s role is to provide the town or county options for types of poles and light fixtures.”
At a meeting of the municipal Pedestrian Safety Committee on Tuesday, members discussed possibly setting a 30 mph speed limit on Grove Street, instead of 35 mph, as well as painting a 2-foot-wide median down the middle of the street. Both ideas have been discussed for some time, but the county hasn’t responded yet to the idea of the median. The committee, which was created in 2013 to address the increasing number of pedestrian and bicyclist accidents in Montclair, plans to ask the Township Council to introduce a resolution supporting the speed-limit change at its June 20 meeting.
Police Lt. Stephanie Egnezzo said on Tuesday that “as of May,” there have been 16 accidents involving pedestrians this year. By comparison, there were 26 pedestrian accidents for the same period of time in 2016, she said.
A resident living at the corner of Chester and Grove, who asked not to be identified, said she was in her house Wednesday night when she heard “a sickening thump.” She looked out her window and saw DeFilippis lying in the middle of Grove, the vehicle that hit her, and the driver.
“I saw the poor driver get out and she saw what she had done, and she just looked like she was devastated,” the resident said. “You feel for everybody involved: the poor woman who lost her life, the poor woman who hit her. It can happen that fast.”
Julie Brinley also lives on Chester Road, near the accident site.
“My husband, children and I are all shaken up today,” she said last Thursday, a day after the accident. “We heard a loud noise last night and couldn’t believe it was from this tragic accident. My husband spoke to the driver and she said she didn’t see her [DeFilippis] in the crosswalk.”
The other resident who lives near the accident site complained about the poor lighting at night at the corner, where there is only one streetlight, as well as motorists speeding down Grove Street.
Resident Javier Guardo has been working on a project, through the Planet Civic website, to identify all of the burnt-out streetlights in town, as well as to map out corners and intersections that residents believe do not have enough lighting at night. He said that at least two residents participating in the streetlight project had raised concerns about Grove Street.
The county, in partnership with Montclair and five other Essex County towns, last month launched a safety program called Street Smart NJ to curtail pedestrian accidents on bustling Bloomfield Avenue. From 2011 through 2015 there were 256 pedestrians involved in crashes on that county road, with three fatalities and 226 injuries. The county is also seeking $5 million in federal funds to upgrade the traffic lights along Bloomfield Avenue.