By Jennifer Warren
Residents of Forest Hills and Rego Park have held protests and urged the city to act decisively to slow down traffic on Queens Boulevard, where three pedestrians have been killed in the last six months. Several others have been hit by cars speeding down the boulevard's 12 lanes.
Councilman Walter McCaffrey (D-Woodside) said after 16 years in the City Council and his fifth hearing on Queens Boulevard traffic, he hoped that the new commissioner of transportation, Iris Weinshall, might do for the thoroughfare what her predecessors had not.
“I have to say the three past administrations have been slow getting to do the work,” McCaffrey said outside City Hall before the hearing. “There's a general bias to get traffic from New York City out to Long Island. I'm hoping the new commissioner will take this up as a challenge.”
Iris Weinshall, who was appointed commissioner for transportation in early September, told the Council's Transportation Committee last Thursday that her agency during and prior to her appointment, had introduced many changes to make Queens Boulevard safer.
Weinshall ticked off a list of measures put into effect: the installation of mid-block traffic signals, the refurbishment of pavement markings, widened medians, a massive public outreach program and a change in the way traffic lights are timed.
“We don't want [motorists] to see a steady green, so they will not speed along,” she said.
Since 1993, more than 70 people have died along the seven-mile- long boulevard that cuts through the center of Queens, according to Police Department and DOT reports.
Last fall a 14-year-old from Rego Park was killed while crossing at 67th Avenue, a 78-year-old woman from Maspeth died at the Woodhaven Boulevard intersection and a Flushing firefighter was severely injured by a car at 55th Avenue.
Weinshall outlined DOT changes for this year, which include lowering the speed limit for some segments of Queens Boulevard to 30 mph from 35 mph, adding linear pedestrian fencing along some portions of the boulevard and installing a third hidden, red-light camera which will photograph cars that do not stop at red lights. Those who violate the red light will receive a summons in the mail.
“We would almost beg pedestrians to think twice about crossing–whether they're older or impaired – but to think twice about crossing,” Weinshall said after reporting her agency's work.
But Councilman Noach Dear (D-Brooklyn), who chairs the committee, took a dim view of the DOT's efforts and said the only way to reduce fatalities on Queens Boulevard is to increase police patrols.
“Maybe it needs actual people, a cop full time – 24 hours, 12 hours – whatever it takes – the parking meter attendants. How much is a life worth? It's worth a lot more than the salary of a police officer,” Dear told Weinshall.
He cited heavily policed intersections in Manhattan, such as outside Radio City Music Hall, where one police officer is stationed on each corner. He suggested similar police staffing for Queens Boulevard to help pedestrians and at times prevent them from crossing the 12-lane thoroughfare.
“The tourists are getting more protection than the citizens … natives,” Dear said.
Deputy Chief of Patrol Borough Queens North Edward Cannon countered that “from a realistic point of view to place a uniformed police officer in the middle of 12 lanes of traffic and expect them to control that” was probably unlikely.
Cannon also said it also was unlikely that police would issue jaywalking summonses to the elderly who crossed against the light.
But McCaffrey took issue with Cannon and recommended “tough love” for senior citizens by issuing them summonses. “Once that happens in two or three senior centers, they'll tell all their friends,” he said.
Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), who has been fighting for years for effective ways to protect elderly pedestrians in her district, said senior citizens must cross the boulevard to buy milk and other necessities. Queens has more seniors than any other borough and many of them are concentrated in the Forest Hills area.
Drawing on her own observations, she said cars were speeding down the boulevard at 43 miles per hour even though the speed limit is 30 mph and a policeman was “just sitting in the car.”
Cannon said the police had been patroling Queens Boulevard and had issued summonses for 53,539 moving violations along the boulevard in the past two years, including 3,858 for speeding.
But John Kaehny, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group that promotes street safety and pedestrians and cyclists' rights, interpreted Cannon's numbers differently.
“That adds up to only five a day,” he said, when compared to the 100 motorists who the DOT estimates speed along the boulevard each hour.
Kaehny called for a complete re-engineering of the boulevard, citing the overhaul of the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, which received $9 million in federal funds for its reconstruction, he said.
“It must be fundamentally changed,” Kaehny said. “or the problem will continue for another three decades.