BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair’s SAFE Complete Streets Implementation Plan is closer to becoming part of the master plan after Planning Board members voted on Monday, Sept. 21, to incorporate it, but only after a preamble is written up.
The plan has been held up for three years as Planning Board members wrestled with language they felt went beyond guidance for bike paths and could be interpreted as a directive. The board now plans to write up a preamble that would spell out that the plan offers choices and a vision only.
Since 2009, Montclair has had a Complete Streets Policy that requires future roadway improvement projects to include safe accommodations for all, including bicyclists, pedestrians, transit riders and the mobility-impaired.
The township received a grant in 2016 to hire consultant NV5, which was tasked, with the aid of a steering committee, with drafting a plan to implement SAFE Streets throughout Montclair. It was completed in 2017 with the intention of making it part of the master plan. Doing so would allow for funding for future streetscaping throughout town, said Planner Janice Talley.
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The SAFE Streets plan includes a menu of infrastructure upgrade options such as bike lanes or sharrows, pedestrian islands, clearer crosswalks and improved countdown signals depending on the type of street and the volume of traffic. But it has yet to be adopted into the master plan, with planners concerned that bike paths will permanently change the streetscape and result in a loss of parking.
SAFE Streets advocates have maintained that by not incorporating it into the master plan, pedestrian safety was not being addressed.
Since 2017 there have been 119 collisions and three deaths on Montclair streets involving pedestrians and cyclists. Last year, 40 pedestrians and 15 cyclists were involved in crashes, even with a major increase in enforcement, according to data supplied by the Montclair Police Department.
While Talley has said that the document offers suggestions and a menu of options for streetscapes and bike paths, Planning Board Chairman John Wynn has maintained that the language in the document reads more like a definite plan.
“I am concerned that if we make it part of the master plan it will be relied upon,” Wynn said.
Other board members have pointed to flaws in the planning of bike routes for streets they feel are not wide enough to accommodate such paths.
Michael Dannemiller of NV5, who helped write the plan, told board members at the Sept. 21 meeting that the plan was a starting point with many options, not a capital improvement plan.
“There is nothing in this plan that says ‘Thou shall stripe a bike path.’ All concepts should consider parking, while weighing safety. After that it’s a political decision,” he said, meaning any changes to streets would need council approval.
The town does not currently have any dedicated bike paths, only sharrows, which indicate that motorists must share the road with bicyclists.
Montclair’s 2015 Land Use and Circulation element of the master plan also recommends the town establish a network for both pedestrians and cyclists.
Although the plan’s suggestions run from dedicated bike paths to sharrows, Dannemiller said the town could decide on the latter, which would not require a “heavy build, just some paint.”
During the pandemic, as more Montclairians chose biking as a popular mode of transportation, Bike&Walk Montclair, which has been lobbying for the incorporation of the plan, circulated an online survey that received 1,000 responses, with close to 80 percent of respondents favoring creating temporary pedestrian and bike paths.
Among the streets currently seeing a higher volume of bikers and walkers are Montclair and Highland avenues, said Bike&Walk Montclair President John Sullivan. According to survey respondents, streets most favored for walking and biking paths are Bloomfield Avenue, Walnut Street and Euclid Place/Highland Avenue.
The Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the preamble after it is drafted.
Board members Carol Willis, Robin Schlager and Sean Spiller abstained from the vote.