Volume 19 | Issue 33 | December 15 - 21, 2006

Downtown Express photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio

A pedestrian passes covered crosswalk signals near Battery Park.

Who forgot the lights? Signals crossed at wild West St.

By Skye H. McFarlane

Rochelle and Waygon Sanders, a pair of honeymooners from Mississippi, decided to take advantage of the mild New York weather Tuesday morning with a visit to Battery Park. The only problem was, they had to get there first.

At the tangled five-way intersection where West St. flows into Battery Place, the cheerful young couple looked up to find the traffic signals — all 12 of them — covered with black plastic construction cloth. In their place, tilting stop signs mounted on wooden posts indicated that all traffic should stop, but no signs or traffic agents were present to indicate which lane had the right of way.

The Sanders sprinted to the pedestrian island in the center of Battery Place. They began to cross the eastbound lanes but then backtracked to the island when a blue Ford Taurus rolled through the stop sign and into the crosswalk.

“You don’t know where to go or whether you’re going to have time to get across,” said Rochelle Sanders, blinking in bewilderment.

The Sanders were just two of thousands of tourists and commuters forced to play a human version of “Frogger” in recent weeks — hopping from island to island in an attempt to reach the opposite curb. The traffic signals, which may be working as soon as next week, seem to have been stuck in a nebulous transition between the state and city Departments of Transportation, with neither D.O.T. accepting full responsibility for the intersection.

Once operational, the lights will be a welcome addition to the busy intersection, where cabs and cars mingle with heavily loaded trucks weaving their way from Route 9A (West St.) to South St. and the Financial District. In the past, the junction was regulated by stop signs. In those days, though, the signs were permanent and the road was narrower, making the crossing moderately safer for pedestrians. On Tuesday, most motorists rolled through the temporary stop signs and several never slowed down at all.

During primary construction on the southern section of the state’s Route 9A Project, which installed the lights, widened the road, revamped the sidewalks and modified the traffic pattern, construction workers directed traffic with flags. But now that project is nearly complete (most work finished in mid-fall), there is no one in the area to assist motorists and pedestrians, most of whom are unfamiliar with the spot.

“To them [the city and state agencies] it’s a small detail,” said Pat Kirshner, director of operations for the Battery Conservancy, the non-profit organization that oversees Battery Park.

“They don’t have the same sense of what it’s like to be a tourist pedestrian.”

The consensus is that while state D.O.T. is in charge of finishing the traffic signals, city D.O.T. is responsible for activating and maintaining them. Shilpan Patel, who works on the Route 9A project for the state, initially told Downtown Express that he thought the lights were working. He subsequently said that the lights on the southbound lane are functional and he hopes the other signals will be ready to shine by the end of the week. At that point, the city would test the lights and turn them on.

In the meantime, however, the D.O.T.s could not agree on who should regulate traffic in the area. City D.O.T. spokesperson Craig Chin said that as long as state D.O.T is working on the project, the onus is on the state to hire traffic agents if they are needed. Patel insisted that the city is responsible for controlling the traffic on its streets.

Either way, a number of pedestrians Tuesday said they wished that there were police officers at the intersection, both to direct traffic and to ticket the cars that ignored the stop signs.

“It’s seems like that would be the common sense idea,” said Waygon Sanders.

Brooke Dubois of Transportation Alternatives, an organization that advocates for the rights of bicyclists and pedestrians, agreed that N.Y.P.D. traffic agents would go a long way in reducing the dangers at the intersection during its transition time. She also noted that since the West St. bike path currently dead-ends at the intersection, cyclists must either ride on the sidewalk or take their chances in the confusing crossroads.

“When you have all these different modes funneled into one area, you’re going to have lots of conflict between the cars and the bikes and the pedestrians like you’re seeing there,” DuBois said.

The situation is further complicated by a laundry list of other construction projects along Battery Place and State St., the largest of which is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s redesign of the South Ferry subway station. Because the M.T.A.’s construction fence blocks off several entrances to Battery Park, more pedestrians have been funneled to the western access paths at Battery Place and West St. Warm weather and the holiday shopping season also typically boost tourist traffic to Battery Park, a fact that adds to the park conservancy’s concerns.

“It’s scary over there. You jump out of the way of a concrete truck and you might land in a hole,” said Kirshner, who added that she won’t cross the intersection before making eye contact with drivers and pointing out the stop signs. “It’s a very bad impression… That’s not how we want visitors to think of New York City or Battery Park.”

One older tourist with a slight limp, who declined to give her name, said she would probably not return to Battery Park because of the “scary” crossing. “Confusing,” “dangerous,” and “a bit of a mess” were also used by tourists to describe the intersection, but most said that the experience had not interfered with their enjoyment of the city or the park.

Despite honking and questions over the right of way, cab drivers, too, seemed to take the intersection in stride.

“Yeah, it’s crazy, there’s no lights. Only stop signs, but it’s O.K.,” said Majjouj Zakaria, a Moroccan immigrant who has driven a yellow cab for four years. “It’s New York. They’re doing construction. It’s always something.”

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