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VIDEO: Amid Protests Over Pedestrian Crash, County Fast-tracks Proposed Changes to Livingston Avenue

NBFD Director Robert Rawls Returns to Work After Injuring Three Kids While Driving City Vehicle
Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A report issued in March by Rutgers University suggested major changes to Livingston Avenue, but the changes proposed came too late to prevent a tragic crash that seriously injured three local children last week.

However, some ideas in the 24-page report have now been fast-tracked by Middlesex County, which owns the dangerous road.

Hundreds of residents came out to government meetings last week to protest the crash, where a sport utility vehicle driven by New Brunswick's Fire Director Robert Rawls struck the children at 3:34pm on Tuesday.

Rawls was heading southbound on Livingston Avenue at Delavan Street in the city-owned Chevy Tahoe SUV when he crashed into the kids, who were on their way home from school and crossing at a busy intersection in a crosswalk without the aid of a crossing guard.

Just a day later, hundreds marched from the scene of the crash to City Hall, where the City Council was scheduled to meet, holding up signs with slogans like "Protect [our] Children!" and "Justice For The Kids."

Another one written in Spanish was much more specific.  Translated into English, it said, "Robert Rawls is responsible for the Accident [Involving] Three Innocent Children!"

Rawls earns an annual salary of $155,000 as New Brunswick's Fire Director.  He has not returned to work since the crash, and on Friday was issued two traffic tickets for the crash.

On Wednesday, television cameras from both English and Spanish-language channels competed for position in New Brunswick's cramped Council Chambers, where the crowd of protesters overflowed into the hallway and all the way onto the lawn outside City Hall.

A crowd stood outside, chanting in both Spanish and English, "We want justice!"

A segment of the group marched around the block to the police station, and then up Joyce Kilmer Avenue to the city's fire headquarters, but no city employees were visible inside either building.

That didn't stop protestors from stopping at each to chant and voice their concerns.

The next night, at the meeting of the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, many of the same protesters seized on the proposed "road diet" initiative, which was suggested in a report issued by the Rutgers Voorhees Transportation Center in March.

The protests were largely a family event, with children making up more than a third of the 300 or so protesters.

And they got results: County Freeholder Director Ronald Rios read from a prepared statement promising major changes "within 30 days" to two of the most dangerous sections of the four-lane road that has become the focus of so much attention in recent months.

COUNTY PROMISES ACTION BASED ON LIVINGSTON AVE. STUDY

Rios announced at the crowded public meeting that, beginning Monday, the county will prohibit on-street parking in the two designated areas, and begin to process of reconfiguring the road from four lanes into three.

The two sections to see changes are located between Delavan and Handy Streets, and between Loretta and Elizabeth Streets.

"This is a tragedy that should not have occurred and should not be repeated," said Rios, who said he met with New Brunswick Mayor Jim Cahill regarding the dangerous road earlier that day.

The plans announced Thursday call for a reduction in the number of lanes from four (two in each direction) to three, with one lane in each direction and a middle lane designated specifically for making left turns.

The study found changes like those would decrease speeding and make Livingston Avenue safer for pedestrians.  

"Safety impacts of road diets are one of the main reasons that these are pursued," reads the report.  "Evidence on the safety effect suggests that road diet conversions of arterial streets in urban areas will achieve about a 19% reduction in crashes."

Unlike the designs in the road diet report, official bike lanes are not yet included in the plans.

“Reducing a road from four lanes to three will improve pedestrian safety,” Patterson said. He said this concept has worked for other similar roadways such as Clarendon Road in Brooklyn, NY.

Once a safe haven for pedestrians, who only needed to be concerned for the occasional horse-drawn carriage, Livington Avenue has become a major thoroughfare for cars as the area developed into a modern urban center.

But over time, as the country began to rely more and more on automobiles, the heart of New Brunwick has been divided by the busy roadway, which poses dangers to pedestrians even at the few intersections with traffic signals.

The Rutgers Transportation study concluded that a road diet on an urban street like Livingston Avenue is likely to reduce crashes by 19 percent.

Additionally, modifying the road configuration in this way would decrease speeding on the roadway, the report said. The study concluded that most vehicles exceed the 25 mph speed limit within the New Brunswick city limits.

“Initiatives such as a road diet for Livingston Avenue are part of the city's effort to make New Brunswick as 'walkable' and healthy a city as possible,” said Mayor James Cahill, boasting in a press release when the city received the road diet study from Rutgers.

“Through efforts such as this road diet, we hope to improve safety for all road users – motorists, pedestrians, cyclists and people of all ages,” said Cahill.

ONE OF HUB CITY'S MOST DANGEROUS ROADS FOR PEDESTRIANS

The busy thoroughfare has been identified as having “an over-representation of pedestrian crashes among roads in Middlesex County,” according to the Rutgers report.

According to public records, between 2001 and 2011, Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick saw 32 pedestrians injured in 27 crashes, and at least one person killed crossing the street. Not to mention 143 additional individuals injured in 87 other crashes that didn't involve a pedestrian.

"Livingston Avenue currently has about 38 crashes per year, thus we would expect a reduction of about seven crashes per year, on average," reads the study.

"Given the high number of pedestrians that cross the street, some of these would likely be fairly severe pedestrian-related crashes."

Another recent report released by the Bike & Walk Alliance found that 27.2% of vehicular deaths in New Jersey involved pedestrians, ranking second worst among all fifty states.

One of the major safety concerns on Livingston Avenue is that cars drive in excess of the 25-mph speed limit, where motorists regularly hit speeds of 40 miles-per-hour or more, according to the city's Planning Director Glenn Patterson.

But it also remained a road that thousands, if not tens of thousands of pedestrians needed to cross today.  

“It's a wide road with cars traveling in excess of the speed limit,” said Patterson at a December City Council.  “The new road configuration should encourage motorists to obey the speed limit.”

It could also allow for designated bicycle lanes on Livingston Avenue, but that  is not a part of the current plan.

Most significantly, the report concluded that in a cost benefit analysis the decrease in traffic collisions far outweighs the minimal increase in travel time on the roadway.

Richard Wallner, head of the Middlesex County Engineering Department, said the study presented “good, factual information.” Wallner said the city and county will work together to determine the feasibility of the road diet project, which must be “evaluated on many different levels.”

The mayor's office has confirmed that the city and county are “collaborating on the preparation of conceptual plans and very preliminary cost estimates to develop a consensus on the best and most cost effective manner of moving forward.” The mayor's office said it hopes to have draft concept plans available in the next month.

FIRE DIRECTOR'S DRIVING RECORD COMES UNDER SCRUTINY

As Rawls returned to work today, after taking the rest of last week off, city officials were quick to defend his driving record.

"Our review of Director Rawls’s driving history that we are aware of has led us up to this point to believe that many or most of the accidents or infractions took place decades ago," said Jennifer Bradshaw, the spokesperson for New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill.

But according to NBC, twelve of Rawls' nineteen accidents occurred within the last seven years. Additionally, Rawls was not charged in a 2004 crash that seriously injured two Rutgers employees.

A confidential source said, in that incident, Rawls was permitted to move his car at the scene and was not given a sobriety test. But the crash did result in a sizable out-of-court settlement for one of the pedestrian victims, whose pelvis was broken in three places.

Two years later, Rawls was promoted to Director, becoming the only non-white person in Mayor Cahill's all-male cabinet. And two years later, Rawls was cited for unsafe operation of a motor vehicle after a crash in North Brunswick.

"The majority of the accidents that have happened in recent years have been deemed to be minor in nature, or not the Director’s fault," said Bradshaw.

"The City’s policy is that when driving incidents involving City vehicles occur, our administrations review them on an individual basis. This has been the case with Director Rawls."

PRESSURE FROM LATINOS RESULTS IN PROMISE OF ACTION

Motorists frequently speed on Livingston Avenue, and the growing Latino community living in close proximity to the busy road has become increasingly fed up with what they referred to as a "lack of respect" for pedestrians, especially young kids.

The lack of crossing guards and traffic law enforcement, combined with the fact that a city official behind the wheel was taken to the hospital and not arrested, each helped to fuel the great anger amongst the city's large Latino community.

Martin Perez, leader of the city-based Latino Leadership Alliance said it was "irresponsible" for city officials to allow Rawls to drive the vehicle in question, based on his track record.

Most of the dozen city residents who were interviewed for this story said they would be in favor of the road diet in order to increase pedestrian safety.

Denize Suastegui, a Hale Street resident who walks across Livingston Avenue to get her job at Livingston Pediatrics, says modifications to the road could increase safety for the many school children who cross the busy avenue.

“I've seen kids walking [across the street] and they're like 8-years-old and they're not supervised when they cross the street,” Suastegui said.

Claudia Garcia, a Seaman Street resident, who also walks to work at Livingston Pediatrics said bicycle lanes could improve safety.

“There are two schools around here,” Garcia said. “And they should have a free space for everyone to pass by.”

The city is home to thousands of residents who use walking or bicycling as their primary mode of transportation.

Among them is Jacqueline Martinez, a Hale Street resident who crosses Livingston Avenue with her three children each school day to bring her son David, 7, to his bus stop, often with Allison, 5, and Rebecca, 2, in tow.

She said there are definite concerns about pedestrian safety on Livingston Avenue.

“Cars do not stop,” Martinez said. “Sometimes little kids cross by themselves and cars don't stop.”

“Anything that they could do to help would be good,” she said.

Abelardo Cruz, a junior at New Brunswick High School who walks to school everyday from his home on Seaman Street, agreed.

“Cars usually don't stop for people,” Cruz said.

Victor Ruiz, a New Brunswick Middle School student who walks along Livingston Avenue to get to school, said many students would ride their bicycles to school if there were one or more bike lanes on the road.

Others who use alternate modes of transportation agreed that a bicycle lane would improve safety on Livingston Avenue.

“It would be extremely useful,” said Peter Schaeffing, who rides a bicycle from his home on Hale Street to his job in downtown New Brunswick, regarding the proposed bike lane. “I would feel a lot safer.”

“I would love a bike lane,” said Abril Braxton, a Franklin Township resident who frequently skateboards into downtown New Brunswick via Livingston Avenue. “It's a busy road.”

According to the report New Jerseyans exceed the national average for the percent of people who walk to work (in New Jersey 3.2% walk to work, while the national average is 2.8%.) In the state, 0.3% of people bike to work, while the national average is 0.6%.

CROSSING GUARDS HARD TO COME BY IN HUB CITY

The three victims were crossing at the intersection with Delavan Street, which will soon see an influx of children when the AC Redshaw Elementary School, the city's newest school building opens in September.

Redshaw will be the fourth public school on Livingston Avenue, and remarkably only one is situated at an intersection with a traffic light.

Even though Livingston Elementary is located just a block away, there was no crossing guard at Delavan and Livingston when Rawls' SUV struck the children at 3:34pm.

City officials say that the previous crossing guard had quit her job on April 8, and a replacement guard was still in-training.  Residents say there hasn't been a guard regularly at that intersection in years.

Almost three weeks before the crash, Danielle Moore, a retired crossing guard urged the City Council to increase the hourly pay rate for crossing guards in an effort to recruit more healthy, young people to do the job.  She also pleaded with them to put more police officers on traffic duty.

When crossing guards call in sick or don't show up, it is left to the New Brunswick Police Department's Traffic Safety Bureau to staff the corners that are most in need of crossing guards.

In the end, young children and others often wind up having to cross bustling intersections by themselves.

Moore, a 37-year resident of nearby Joyce Kilmer Avenue, regularly attends City Council meetings to speak up for issues in her neighborhood.

She defended the character of Robert Rawls, the man behind the wheel that day and said she squarely placed the blame on the city and its police department for failing to put someone on that corner to cross the kids.

Several other residents also criticized the government for failing to have a crossing guard on duty at the time of the crash, and not investing in traffic signals and other infrastructure, issues not addressed by the road diet.

Prior to the incident, city and school board officials said there was no need for a traffic light at the site of what will be the city's fourth school located on Livingston Avenue.

"Redshaw, as with the other schools in the city, has in its vicinity flashing lights, bold crosswalks, speed enforcement signs, and crossing guards when that building is in session," said city spokesperson Jennifer Bradshaw.

It was also learned that the city intended to have just 38 crossing guards on duty during its 2014 budget, but doesn't intend to pay them in the same way.

Instead, the city is passing the expense along to the city's Board of Education for the first time.

ESCOBAR PUSHED FOR IMPROVEMENTS AFTER PRIOR ACCIDENT 

Little has changed on Livingston Avenue, despite vocal complaints. The city's response to complaints prior to this accident was, "Livingston Avenue is a county road."

Just five months earlier, family members of a woman who was struck and seriously injured near the Foodtown, descended on a City Council meeting to ask for change.

According to emails obtained by New Brunswick Today, City Council President Rebecca Escobar wrote to the county about the dangerous road on December 23, starting an unprecedented process of collaboration between the city and county governments.

In an email to Middlesex County Freeholder H. James Polos, Escobar wrote the following: 

Last Wednesday, December 18th ,the NB city council meeting was attended by various relatives of a 70 year old woman who was struck by a car on Livingston Avenue (crossing from Woodnor Apts. to Foodtown) last week. The area of Livingston Avenue where this crash occurred had been for quite some time a dangerous area for pedestrians to cross. Moreover, throughout the years, there have been several fatalities.

It is my understanding that the City, the County and Rutgers have been working in coordinating a study addressing the many challenges and complexities of Livingston Avenue. As we await for this process to move forward, I am seeking your assistance as the chairman of the County's Public Safety to explore what can we do to reduce the possibilities of having more fatalities in that specific area. In my limited knowledge of transportation and pedestrian issues, I would recommend a lighted pedestrian crosswalk. What do you think? What other options are available?

At the meeting, the owner of the shopping center where Foodtown is located, Mr. Ronald Struminger, stated that he contacted the County's engineer office to address the situation and is waiting for a return call. He also offered financial assistance if needed specifically for a lighted pedestrian crosswalk.

After that crash seriously injured an elderly woman near the city's Foodtown supermarket, the same spot where a person was killed in 2007, angry residents stormed City Council meetings and demanded action.

Escobar and city officials responded that it was waiting on Rutgers to produce its long-awaited study on how to improve the road.

Dayla Medina, a resident whose mother was struck by a vehicle while crossing the road, said the city has not acted quickly enough.

“To hear that [my mother] is the third person to be hit and yet nothing has been done, I'm angry,” Medina said at the December 18 meeting. “She is not the first. What are we waiting for? Another fatality? Another study?”

Patterson explained later in the meeting that the city has authorized the Rutgers Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy to initiate a study of a proposed road diet through a Rutgers Community Partnership Grant, the first public mention of the "road diet" study.

“Doing road diets are a way to make a road safer and calm the traffic out there,” Patterson said.

Fahiym Torres, a resident whose aunt was struck, said at the Dec. 18 council meeting that he feels a lighted crosswalk is the only way to make the area safer pedestrians.

“Because [Livingston Avenue] is such a wide street, it's not an appropriate street to do flashing crosswalks. We need a different type of solution,” said Patterson in response.

“If there's not going to be a lighted crosswalk, it's not going to make a difference,” Torres said at the Dec. 18 meeting.

“You need something that's going to be a light, that people see, drunk drivers, people speeding. They can see that. If it's not going to be something like that, its not going to make a difference.”

When members of the city council pressed Patterson at the Dec. 18 meeting about expediting the process, Patterson agreed to press Rutgers to finish the study as soon as possible.

Since Escobar's email to Polos, the city and county have been collaborating on how to improve Livingston Avenue.

According to Parking Authority Executive Director Mitch Karon, who also chairs the city's Traffic Commission, the handful of commssion members discussed the situation at a January 6 meeting.

"Stop for pedestrian signs were placed," Karon told New Brunswick Today. "Police put temporary radar speed sensors in area. County and City Engineering Departments to meet to discuss long term solutions."

CITY OFFICIALS STRUGGLE TO DEAL WITH ISSUES OF SAFETY

At this year's NJ Bike and Walk Summit in February, New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill said making the city safer for bicyclists and pedestrians is an important goal.

“Making New Brunswick streets safe for all our residents is one of the reasons we implemented our 'Complete Streets' policy so as to safely accommodate all users of our streets: motorists, cyclists, pedestrians and persons with all abilities, including the handicapped, the elderly and children,” Cahill said.

In this upcoming election year, Cahill will be running for an unprecedented seventh term in the city's top elected office.

The city is working on a fair amount of projects geared towards bicycles including a dedicated bike lane on Suydam Street and a multi-million "bikeway" connecting the downtown to both Rutgers campuses in the city.

A flashing crosswalk at the intersection of Suydam Street and Throop Avenue is also planned for spring of this year.

But Cahill is now in the position of either defending Rawls, or potentially losing the only person of color in his cabinet.

Rawls is one of city's ten mayor-appointed department heads and he earns the second highest salary in the entire city government.  The others are all white men.

A shooting in broad daylight between moving cars just blocks away, just a few hours before the Rawls accident, didn't help matters.

Neither did a crash that occurred a few days later, yesterday, when a city vehicle downed a utility pole near the city's Water Utility.

Bradshaw said there would "definitely" be a ticket issued because the vehicle "left the roadway."  She said she could not identify the driver.

Still, the city has been trying to address some of the public's concerns.  A crossing guard has been out at the intersection of Delavan and Livingston each school day since the crash.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, an undercover police officer participated in an operation to catch drivers who failed to yeild to pedestrians at the same corner.

"Officers were out there [Thursday] performing a decoy operation to enforce yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks. They gave out about 40 citations and 13 warnings," said Bradshaw.

"A little background, that operation is a stipulation of a Pedestrian Safety Program grant given out by the state Divison of Traffic Safety. It's in the amount of $15,000. The Department has received it for the past three years."

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