If you want to stop head-on collisions on Allentown’s Basin Street, install concrete median barriers, argues City Council vice president Ray O’Connell.

“Concrete barriers stop cars,” declared O’Connell at Wednesday night’s City Council meeting. “Painted lines don’t stop cars.”

O’Connell was not pleased to learn that the state Department of Transportation plans to make “low-cost” safety improvements on a high-accident section of Basin Street – improvements that only include using painted lines and rumble strips to keep cars going in opposite directions from smashing into each other.

Based on crash studies, Basin between Union to Auburn streets is considered a top priority for the safety improvements by PennDOT.

Between 2009 and 2011, 124 reported accidents occurred on that stretch – including two fatalities, both caused by head-on collisions, reported Chuck Richards, an engineer in PennDOT’s Allentown office.

It’s only a 3,700-foot section of road –less than one mile-- according to Richards.
That section of Basin Street is four lanes wide, with curves but no median and no shoulders, said PennDOT consultant Karen Colello.

“The crash history showed a predominance of head-on crashes,” said Colello, the project’s designer. She also said there is a history of skidding on that stretch, with more than 50 percent of accidents occurring in wet pavement conditions.

PennDOT’s safety improvement plan for Basin Street was presented to City Council Wednesday night, but council has no authority to change that plan, said council president Julio Guridy.

But Richard Young, Allentown’s public works director, said PennDOT was presenting the plan to get comments both from council and the public.

When those presenting the plan did not seem receptive to adding a concrete median in the middle of Basin Street, O’Connell asked Young to look into doing it, saying “maybe we can do something as a city.” Young promised to take a look at what city, state or federal funds might be available to do that.

A display board outlining the proposed improvements, along with a box for people to comment on PennDOT’s plan, will be on display in the lobby of City Hall for a couple of weeks.

Resident Julie Thomases questioned what good it will do for people to drop comments into a box if nothing about the project will be changed. “That’s like a false thing to let the public feel like they have some impact on something when they really don’t,” she said. “The outcome is already predetermined.”

“This isn’t a good process,” said council member Jeanette Eichenwald. “We already know before we even do this that this is not the right way to do it.”

“It is an improvement for safety through this corridor,” said Richards, who stressed the number of accidents will decrease after the proposed improvements are made.

Said Eichenwald: “I have no doubt that it is an improvement, but the question is it the best we can do?”

Echoed Guridy: “It’s an improvement but it’s not the best we can do.”

Said O’Connell: “If you go that extra step, you might really minimize the amount of accidents – and deaths.”

A different opinion was offered by council member Joe Davis, who said PennDOT has come up with a solution to address a dangerous situation in the city that is within the state’s budget and timeframe. “PennDOT is going to make a very dangerous situation less dangerous. It’s a good deal.”

“This is not a done deal yet,” said Guridy.

“I think it’s pretty well done,” said O’Connell.

The project will cost $437,000 in federal safety funds, funding Richards described as “time sensitive” -- meaning the project must be advertised for construction by October. He told council: “We’re kind of pressed to push forward and try to get something out the door early.”

Work on the road will begin in fall and be completed by the end of the summer of 2014. Colello said the work can be done with minimal impact to traffic
The project includes restriping the roadway, narrowing the traveling lanes from 12 to 11 feet. Young said 11-foot-wide lanes help slow traffic.

A four-foot-wide painted median is proposed to serve as a buffer between traffic moving in opposite directions, to reduce head-on accidents. Richards added center-line rumble strips will be put along that four-foot-wide median. “They’ve been a proven counter-measure to reduce head-on accidents.”

“Wouldn’t it make more sense if you put up a concrete medial strip?” asked O’Connell. “At least you’re not going to have head-on collisions. I like concrete barriers if you’re talking about safety.”

Colello said a concrete median is a valid option that was considered for the project. But she claimed a scheduling issue prevented it from being included.