By Gretchen Webster
WESTPORT — Every public school property in Westport will now sit within an official “School Zone,” an effort to improve traffic and pedestrian safety, with fines doubled for speeding and other traffic infractions in the designated areas.
The measure was passed unanimously by the Board of Selectwomen on Wednesday after months of work by town officials and a special task force.
The selectwomen also approved another school safety measure — a mid-block crosswalk across Easton Road for children walking from the Wisteria Lane neighborhood to the Coleytown schools, pending approval by the state.
First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker thanked Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich and police Cpl. Alan D’Amura for their work on the school zone project, and the Traffic and Pedestrian Safety Task Force, which held meetings in each Representative Town Meeting district to gather residents’ feedback on traffic issues around Westport.
“The residents and business owners in this group are taking public feedback very seriously,” Tooker said. “Your feedback matters — we’re listening.”
Currently, King’s Highway Elementary School is the only local school with a designated “School Zone” in place, according to Ratkiewich. “We realized that we need to do this at all schools.”
Each school zone will have signs indicating pedestrian crossings, some of which may be enhanced with warning lights, he said. Pedestrians will be able to activate the lights from both sides of the street by pushing a button, Ratkiewich said.
The town can quickly install the school safety signs and lights at schools on town-owned roads, but local officials must apply to the state for permits to create the zones for schools located on state roads. Private schools have not yet been included in plans for school zones, Ratkiewich said, but may be in the future.
The time is right to establish school zones as the town has been taking steps to improve safety around those properties, D’Amura said.
A new School Safety Unit, recently approved by police and school district officials, has deployed school safety officers to patrol elementary and middle school properties.
With the newly established school zones, the school safety officers will work with administrators to inform parents about traffic changes and to create community awareness of efforts to curb speeding near schools, which will be enforced by stepped-up enforcement and doubled fines.
“We want to make sure that every child, every parent, every teacher is safe,” D’Amura said.
Mid-block crosswalk on Easton Road
The selectwomen also approved installation of a pedestrian crosswalk at the intersection of Easton Road and Wisteria Lane.
The Police Department recently received a complaint that the area is very dangerous for the more than 20 children from the Wisteria Lane neighborhood who cross Easton Road (also state Route 136) en route to Coleytown Middle and Elementary schools, Ratkiewich said.
“Easton Road is a speedway,” he said. Plus, there is sidewalk on only one side of the road, and numerous large tree stumps were left along the road edge when the state Department of Transportation cut down trees, making the area hazardous for pedestrians. “The sidewalk is in abysmal condition,” he said.
The state doesn’t always approve mid-block crosswalks on state roads, Ratkiewich added, but the town will seek permission for the installation because of the hazardous conditions.
Establishing school zones and new crosswalks on state roads is more complicated than on town roads because of the state permitting process, the public works director said. Westport officials should hear back from the state about a month after applying for the work on state roads. The town already has the sign posts in stock and only needs to order the signs, DeMaura said.
School zones proposed for state roads are:
- Coleytown Elementary School at Easton Road.
- Greens Farms Elementary School at Post Road East.
- Saugatuck Elementary School at Riverside Avenue.
Zones to be designated on town roads are:
- Coleytown Middle School at North Avenue.
- Staples High School at North Avenue.
- Bedford Middle School on North Avenue and Cross Highway.
- Long Lots Elementary School on Hyde Lane.
Three schools are positioned on both town and state roads are:
- Coleytown Elementary School at North Avenue.
- King’s Highway Elementary School at Burr Road.
- Greens Farms Elementary School at Morningside Drive South.
Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.