The next time West Hills neighbors ask when the city will fix that dangerous blind turn on Valley Street, Alderwoman Angela Russell may have a new spreadsheet to show them—with some, but not all, the answers.
Russell (pictured) Monday called upon city officials to share more information with lawmakers about the state of traffic-calming improvements in the city. She said she wants to be able to assure her constituents that the city is working on making their streets safer, and, ideally, when that work will be done.
Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts said the city will be putting online a spreadsheet of all requested traffic-calming improvements. The spreadsheet will show details like when a project was requested, whether the problem has been studied, whether any design work has been done, and—at the request of aldermen—some information about when the work might be completed. Smuts said the city won’t be able to lay out precise dates, but it will be able to provide a sense of whether a project will take months or years to accomplish.
Smuts shared his spreadsheet plans at a Monday night aldermanic briefing on New Haven’s Complete Streets program—the city’s efforts to make streets safer for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. The event was one of a series of briefings the freshman-majority Board of Aldermen has been holding. Lawmakers have been recently briefed on the Shubert Theater, Yale University, and Yale-New Haven Hospital’s pending acquisition of the Hospital of St. Raphael.
Smuts (pictured with spreadsheet) gave Monday’s briefing along with city engineer Dick Miller and traffic czar Jim Travers. They began with a brief history of Complete Streets efforts in New Haven, which gained steam in 2008 after the death of two pedestrians: a Yale medical student struck while crossing South Frontage and an 11-year-old girl killed while crossing Whalley Avenue.
The New Haven Safe Streets Coalition was formed soon after, to increase traffic safety in the city. With the efforts of then-aldermen Erin Sturgis-Pascale, Roland Lemar, and Michelle Sepulveda, the city adopted a “Complete Streets” strategy that has four components, Travers said: enforcement, education, public participation, and engineering.
Enforcement alone has meant a decrease in accidents, Smuts said. The city has gone from issuing about 10,000 tickets in 2007 to between 22,000 and 25,000 in the last couple of years, he said.
One of the most tangible outcomes of the traffic-calming efforts is the Complete Streets Design Manual, a document that guides the way the city undertakes street design to maximize safety. The manual includes a way for people to request traffic improvements using a “Project Request Form” to describe the problem they see and suggest possible solutions.
“There has to be more communication about the process, from time of application to” time of completion, Alderwoman Russell said. “There’s the perception that other parts of the city get preference over Valley Street.”
Neighbors on Valley Street have for years been complaining about cars driving too fast on a road that lacks crosswalks and sidewalks. The street includes a blind curve that can be particularly dangerous.
That’s not the only problem spot in her ward, Russell said. Speeding cars are known to crash into parked ones on nearby Fowler Street, she said. Her constituents want to know when something will be done, she said. “What am I to tell them?”
The street may need re-engineering, which can be a costly and time-consuming process, Smuts said. “The immediate thing we can do, the thing we can do tomorrow, is enforcement.”
“It seems like we are getting lost in the process,” Russell said. “What does it take to actually get the process started?”
“We’ve started,” said Miller (pictured). “Valley Street is an extremely difficult challenge. ... It needs to be looked at in a very particular way.”
“If you communicate that to me, I can tell [my constituents],” Russell said.
Fair Haven Heights Alderwoman Brenda Jones-Barnes also spoke up in favor of the city sharing more information about the status of requested traffic improvements. She said people in her ward have been waiting for something to be done about traffic on Foxon Boulevard.
Smuts said the city will “very shortly” be putting a table online that shows the status of all open complete streets projects.
Jones-Barnes (pictured) said the spreadsheet should include a “timeline” component, giving people a sense of what stage projects are in.
“I think we can put something in there,” Smuts said. He suggested a “notes” field at then end of each row might be a place to give a sense of project timeframes.
“I like numbers,” Jones-Barnes said. “Our constituents are expecting a response.”
“I’m not sure we can give an actual timetable,” Smuts said after the meeting. It won’t be possible to provide precise dates about when a project will be complete, he said. But the city can include in the spreadsheet for neighbors some sense of whether a project is a quick fix or a years-long endeavor. “We can get some information to help them understand that.”
She said after the meeting that the city should provide “something to give people a path to what to expect.” She said she was glad the city would be working to “help open up that gateway.”
“I think it’s a great start,” Russell said. More transparency will address concerns that traffic-calming improvements have been happening mostly in East Rock, not in other city neighborhoods, Russell said.
She said her neighbors notice when the city puts traffic calming devices in other neighborhoods. They say, for instance, “I see those speed bumps over on Canner Street!” she said.
In the absence of details from city officials about what a project might entail or when it might be complete, “it’s easy to jump to conclusions about what they’re doing and not doing.”
Downtown Aldermen Doug Hausladen and traffic safety activist Mark Abraham said after the meeting that transparency created by the new spreadsheet has been something the New Haven Safe Streets Coalition had been looking for since the beginning. A central question had always been: How are we going to track progress? Hausladen said. The new spreadsheet may the first answer to that question.