ANDREW LEIBENGUTH/TIMES NEWS Workers with Bruce & Merrilees Electric Company, a PennDOT contractor, take down the remnants of the old traffic light at the intersection of Mauch Chunk and Pine Street (SR309) in Tamaqua.
Tamaqua Council is not happy with the current traffic situation in their town and they made sure PennDOT knew about it. Council spent over two hours grilling Dennis Toomey, the PennDOT District 5-0 traffic and operations engineer, at Tuesday night's regular council meeting.
Prior to the meeting, Toomey presented council members with a five-page memo and accompanying drawings that he hoped would begin to address some of the ongoing issues stemming from the recent traffic improvement project in town, and outlining some of the possible solutions.
"I'm not the project manager; I'm not the construction manager, but all the traffic issues eventually rise to my level," he said, explaining how he became involved. "I'm here to work toward doing the very, very best we can with this project, and with the issues we have in the borough and to do the right thing."
The first problem Toomey tackled was the matter of egress from the parking lot at Hess Windows. As it stands now, following the project, patrons cannot exit the parking lot legally.
In a previous communication, three possible solutions were outlined by PennDOT, including adding additional traffic signals and making the parking lot exit part of the traffic light loop, which is already complicated at that particular intersection, leaving it as it is today, or returning it to its previous condition, which allowed patrons to exit into traffic. Toomey cited PennDOT standards as the reason behind the changes.
Toomey said that he should have been clearer in the letter that the third option to return the lot to its previous status was not actually a viable option, due to legal and safety issues. Toomey strongly favored the addition of signals to address the issue, but this did not sit well with several council members.
"How many lights are you going to have at that intersection," asked Councilman Brian Connely. "I count 10. You'll have more traffic signals at that intersection than there are at 309 and 209."
Both Connely and Mayor Christian Morrison cited the fact that the intersection has operated relatively safely for years as it was, even when the site housed a pharmacy, which saw significantly more traffic than the current businesses occupying the site. Toomey said that at the time the project planning was done, the site was not being utilized and PennDOT may have underestimated future use of the property.
Council President Micah Gursky questioned installing signals for a single-user parking lot.
"The borough is responsible for these signals in perpetuity, for generations and generations to come. We shouldn't do it willy nilly," he said.
Although Toomey said that the cost to install additional signals would be included in the PennDOT project, the borough would assume responsibility for the cost of maintaining and replacing the signals in the event they were damaged.
"I would say that's in the couple thousand range," said Toomey.
Connely raised a question which repeatedly came up through the evening.
"Since you underestimated this intersection, what are the chances that you underestimated the 5 Points?" he asked. Council had requested that left turn signals be installed at the 5 Points as part of these improvements, and were denied. According to state Rep. Jerry Knowles, who attended the meeting, the fight for the left turn signals dates back more than 25 years.
Toomey said that he would like to have "an honest, good faith, data-driven discussion" about the 5 Points intersection. Gursky asked him why the decision regarding the Hess Window parking lot didn't seem to be based on data.
"You're making my argument for me," Gursky said.
Councilman Dave Mace asked Toomey, "Do you think your organization has a real good track record in this room right now?"
Toomey said that he hopes to work with council to correct that.
Council also heard from Jeffrey Bonacci, the property owner, who said that a vote not to approve the signals would pretty much make his site "useless."
Another issue with the same intersection involved the installation of "No Turn on Red" signs on Mauch Chunk Street for drivers making a right turn onto Pine Street. PennDOT cited the lack of 152 feet of visibility at the intersection, to the left, as the reason for the signs.
Toomey said that if the borough eliminated the first two parking spaces on Pine Street, there is a possibility that the line of sight could be restored and the signs could be removed. Borough council members were reluctant to agree to give up any parking spaces in the downtown. Toomey said that a traffic study and a potential speed limit reduction in the area to 15 mph could alleviate the need to eliminate at least one of the spaces.
Council discussed several other issues; however, the ultimate decision of the night was that Toomey will come back, with the consultant engineer that designed the project, and make formal observations of the traffic flow conditions during the peak hours.
"We will try to understand what is happening with the traffic flow, not just what the model said should have happened," he said. "I'm not going to call it a study, but we're going to try to spend some quality time studying and observing the flow and make suggestions that will improve the situations. We will involve the borough and we will continue until we think we've done the best that we can possibly do."