The Valley Central School District administration is taking the initiative to try to get a traffic light installed at the Middle School/High School campus on Route 17K after the district learned that the project was not included on the state’s priority list for this year or next. While the New York State Department of Transportation has already studied the issue and approved a light at the school complex, the funding for the project has been delayed indefinitely.
The state has also informed the district that it must prepare a study on the traffic flow in the high school parking lot before the light project can move forward. In hopes of procuring the money for the project, the district has posted a template letter on its website, and is asking residents to send the note to their representatives (including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Assemblyman Brian Miller and New York Budget Director Robert Mujica) requesting that the state fund the traffic light.
“They approved it but it’s not in this year’s budget,” Valley Central Superintendent John Xanthis said of the project. “The timing of this is critical, because now they’re going to start doing a new budget and we’re trying to put pressure on and write letters to let them know this is still a huge problem down here and hasn’t gotten better over the last couple of years. It’s gotten worse. Cars are getting backed up, it’s unsafe, all of those things. So when the governor puts in his new budget, we’re asking for money to put this light in front of a campus with 3,000 people in it from 7:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.”
When the Dollar General market opened two years ago right across the street from the school complex, it increased the amount of students crossing the road each day, as kids trek across 17K to grab a snack at the store. While a crosswalk is painted on the ground directing motorists to stop for pedestrians, a fully functional traffic light would undoubtedly be more effective. “It’s a big safety concern for our residents,” Board of Education President Sheila Schwartz said. “Especially at night they have these blinker lights, and I know I’ve walked across there in the dark and cars can’t see it. You don’t pay attention to those blinking lights until you stop. It’s also hard to get in and out of the complex. You’re always having people with near misses on accidents and we’re just concerned. One of these days it’s going to be one of our high school students or one of our parents pulling out. We’re just concerned that folks are waiting for a tragedy to occur before they put a light where it’s been needed for years.”
While the district works to secure the state funding for the light, Valley Central is also putting together a referendum on the project that could be brought to taxpayers as soon as May that would fund the traffic light. “We’re hoping we’ll get some help, but we’ll plan to do this,” Xanthis said. “We’ll see what it costs and hopefully bring a plan to the public and say ‘we want to do it.’ Then we’d fight and try to recover the state aid after the fact. I think there’s a great sense of urgency in this community to get this done.”
The district is working with the CSArch architectural firm to design the parking lot and to craft the public referendum to potentially fund the project. Xanthis noted that the referendum could include expanded lanes on Route 17K, and building improvements such as new lights for the school. “The referendum would be for the whole thing, including improvements for 17K, a light and the campus,” he said. “Right now the traffic patterns in the campus commingle buses and cars, and there should be separate lanes for each. I don’t know if they can do it here, but there should probably be only one point of entry to a campus, according to the experts. That’s something that they’ll study and look at, but it would all be done together. We would say how much it will cost for the lanes, the light, the inner campus improvements. We’ll see what that entails. We’re also working with the state to see if we get that far how much involvement they’d have. We wouldn’t be doing the work on 17K. I don’t think we’re allowed to do that, so it would be in conjunction.”
The Town of Montgomery would have to pass a resolution approving the plan before the project could go forward. During the school board meeting on Dec. 11, Trustee Brad Conklin expressed reservation that the process may be rushing a bit and noted that he’d like the district to compare contract proposals from other firms before committing to CSArch for the project. The school board did not take any action during the session pertaining to the agreement, and Xanthis asked the council to let the district do the work now to see if the timetable could work for a May referendum vote in conjunction with the school budget balloting.
When the Dollar General store opened in 2015, the company was supposed to chip in $20,000 to help fund the traffic light, but Montgomery has yet to receive those funds. Another complication has been receiving information from the state. In an effort to avoid duplication on groundwork that has already been done on the project, CSArch has requested studies from the state that have seemingly gone missing. “They came and we met with Senator (William) Larkin, and that’s when they committed that we’d have a light, but the latest came out that they’ve approved the light but we’re not in the queue,” Xanthis said. “When we spoke to CSArch and the engineers, we told them we have met with the DOT and this person and that person and they had done some studies, but when they asked us for some information we shared it with them, and everything they asked for from the state no one seemed to know anything about it. We even gave them a case number, and they were trying to get that information and they were still having a hard time.”
In addition to increasing safety for students and residents walking across Route 17K, the project could potentially streamline the traffic in the school campus. “We had to have safety people out there just to direct the buses to get in and out of the complex,” Schwartz said. “That was part of the issue we had in the beginning of the year when the buses were late. It would take them 15-20 minutes just to be able to pull out of the complex. We’d also like them to reduce the speed, because if it’s 40 miles per hour, people are doing 50. There are so many comments on our Facebook page from residents who want the light and there’s so many concerns about it.”
As the district develops its referendum for the traffic light project, Valley Central is hoping that residents will keep the pressure on their elected officials to fund the public safety upgrade. “We’re going to flood the market because the budget season is going to start and this is something they can certainly include in the budget,” Xanthis said. “They told Senator Larkin two years ago that we were in the queue, but there’s no money in the queue right now, and there hasn’t been for the two years we’ve been in the queue. So this is year three, so we’ll come up with the plan and we’re going to get a little more aggressive here and try to see what we can do to force the issue. Even without that, we want to have a plan in place so we’ll be ready to go if we get the money or if we don’t get the money we’ll take it to the public.”
By Ted Remsnyder