Fearing lawsuits, city stalled on Greenwich St. safety


By Skye H. McFarlane

In addition to trucks, speeding traffic and slow city bureaucracy, Tribeca pedestrians must also contend with sticky semantics in their battle for calmer crossings.

“This is nobody’s idea of a great intersection. There is no need to mince words here. It’s bad,” said city Department of Transportation representative Joshua Kraus, responding to complaints about the corner of Duane and Greenwich Sts. at a Community Board 1 meeting last Thursday. Yet, as the discussion revealed, the D.O.T.’s self-imposed adherence to a set of federal guidelines essentially makes the agency’s own opinions about city crossings — good, bad, or otherwise — irrelevant.

The Duane St. crossing, just two blocks north of P.S. 234, lines up with the entrance to Tribeca’s Washington Market Park. The Friends of Washington Market Park and other community members have long been fighting to make the intersection safer for pedestrians, either with a traffic light or at least a stop sign.

In describing the hazardous crossing, Kraus may not have been mincing words, but he made clear that the D.O.T. often splits hairs when it comes to traffic mitigation policy — a technical term for the installation of devices like speed bumps, stop signs and traffic lights. The D.O.T. has long claimed that the decision to install or not install a so-called mitigation device is out of its hands, subject to the requirements put forth in the U.S. government’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

The manual states that an intersection should meet certain criteria, called warrants, before it qualifies for a traffic light. Warrants include measures of vehicular and pedestrian traffic in an area, the frequency of gaps in the traffic flow and the relative safety of the crossing, measured in accidents. Similar, less stringent criteria are needed for stop signs or other devices. However, members of the Friends of Washington Market Park stressed Thursday that the federal manual provides guidelines rather than strict regulations.

The language of the manual supports their claim, as the requirements for both stop signs and traffic lights are categorized as “guidance” (optional) rather than “standard” (mandatory). Technically, New York State will not even adopt the standards until later this year. Kraus confirmed that the manual is primarily a set of best practices, but said that the city D.O.T. has chosen to treat it as law for fear of litigation. Essentially, Kraus said, the city worries that if it installed an unwarranted traffic light and someone were to have an accident at the intersection, the driver might sue the city for creating a traffic pattern that does not conform precisely to national standards. For example, traffic lights can sometimes increase the rate of rear-end collisions at an intersection.

Upon hearing the liability explanation, C.B. 1 member Peter Braus shook his head. “This logic is so unbelievably ridiculous,” he said, noting, “A child or someone is going to get run over there.”

Despite the sub-zero wind chill Wednesday morning, a 15-minute period saw eight strollers and three adults with toddlers in tow cross Greenwich at Duane St. With a host of delivery trucks parked outside the Food Emporium one block north, the pedestrians had to walk to the middle of the street before they could see the southbound traffic. Though the intersection has signs indicating the presence of pedestrians and children, there are no lights and no signs telling drivers to slow down or stop. Both sides of the intersection, however, have painted crosswalks, and the Greenwich St. section has a solid white “stop line” — a marking that often fools pedestrians into thinking that the oncoming cars will stop.

In 2005, C.B. 1 passed a resolution calling for a traffic light at the intersection and on Thursday the Tribeca committee agreed to pen a letter supporting any form of mitigation at the crossing. Friends board member Charles Komanoff, a traffic analyst, believes, based on traffic counts that he has done on his own, that Duane St. qualifies for a traffic light under the federal standards. The crossing’s proximity to a school and to intersections with traffic lights (at Chambers and Harrison Sts.) may also make it a good candidate for a stop sign.

According to Kraus, the D.O.T. may be devoted to its regulations, but it is also dependant on the community to come up with creative ways to meet the requirements. Kraus said he would look into using Komanoff’s traffic counts as evidence for a warrant.

“I want you to help us to find an excuse or a loophole so we can put in this light,” Kraus said.