Is Croton’s Beloved Dummy Light in Jeopardy of Extinction?

The following letter was published in this week’s issue of the Gazette.

To the editor:
At the Monday meeting of the Croton Board of Trustees, just a few minutes before the Board was scheduled to approve an award to SIMCO Engineering, someone pointed out that SIMCO has been under indictment for political corruption. Given that the indictments were announced almost a year ago (April 18, 2018) it says something about Croton’s procurement process that this came as a shock to the Village Manager and Board of Trustees.

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It wasn’t a shock to most village residents since the SIMCO announcement was made on Friday: if you start to type “Simco Engin…” the Google auto-complete feature brings up “Simco Engineering investigation” and links to the press releases issued by the Manhattan District Attorney and also the US Dept. of Transportation. People now Google before they go on a first date or make a job offer but our Board of Trustees remains in blissful darkness. Perhaps future contract awards should be vetted by someone who is on eHarmony.

A longstanding Croton tradition is to spend taxpayer money on a dubious “consultant study” which serves as a vehicle for more follow-up studies and more taxpayer money thrown away. The SIMCO contract is yet another example.

Not only did nobody at the Municipal Building bother using Google, the Croton Superintendent of Public Works said the best response to the RFP was the SIMCO proposal which includes (Proposal page 4) analysis of a proposed roundabout where the dummy light now stands. Since the essence of a roundabout is to allow traffic flow without the use of lights or stop signs, by definition Croton is paying for a study that is considering elimination of the dummy light.

In addition to misleading the residents about the continued existence of the dummy light, the Board of Trustees is wasting our money on the “roundabout” portion of the contract award. Roundabouts work by increasing horizontal deflection, thus reducing the number of conflict points in an intersection.

But that increase in deflection (and other features) mean that any roundabout at the present dummy light intersection would necessitate tearing down nearby buildings including Robbins, Orangeberry, and the old German Deli.

In short, a roundabout would require the destruction of the Upper Village. Since that is not going to happen, why is it in the Scope of Work that we taxpayers are paying for?

At Monday’s public session, there was a discussion of “charrettes” (another expensive fad beloved by Croton politicians) and we were told that this was part of what SIMCO was going to do. That is not a completely accurate statement. SIMCO explicitly says that charrettes are “potential additional work” that would cost taxpayers more money. Since the Board intended to pay for charrettes before the initial contract award, why not just be honest with us about all the “additional work” planned?

Croton’s Board of Trustees should stop hiding the true costs to taxpayers. This “camel’s nose under the tent” procurement strategy means that we don’t know how much any given consultant will actually cost. It also is an end-run around the contracting process.

The Village Manager should issue an RFP for the real scope of work, not a stripped down RFP with the knowledge that there has already been a decision to expand the scope of required work.

What is SIMCO going to do under the proposed contract? According to the only document which the Village has chosen to release, SIMCO will count vehicles and pedestrians at the dummy light intersection for a total of 7 hours split among a weekday and a Saturday. They will then use machines to count cars for 9 days.

Why are we spending all this time studying traffic volume? The issue at the dummy light has never been one of traffic volume, it is an issue of safety. It is true that if we wanted to increase throughput car volume this would be a necessary data set, but this is not the case.

For 93 years the historic dummy light has stood at the heart of Croton-on-Hudson, a testament to that small core part of us which stands steadfast in a fast-changing world. It has taken the Bicycle-Pedestrian Committee and Croton Board of Trustees less than 2 years to put the dummy light in jeopardy of extinction.

SIMCO says that they will request crash data for the last 3 years from NYS Dept. of Transportation. This is certainly necessary data, and I am puzzled why the Village Manager cannot get this data from her Police Chief. Why don’t the Village Manager and the Bicycle-Pedestrian Committee (BPC) already have this data? I realize that the Village Manager is busy, but if she gives me fifty bucks I will FOIL Albany and she can knock off a few grand from the SIMCO contract.

Failure to rely on data is another habit at the Municipal Building, and has been addressed by others in different contexts. Determining what data is needed and then obtaining that data is normally done at the outset of a project.

There is no data whatsoever in the agenda documents section, but in a March 15, 2018 Journal-News article BPC member Robert Olsson discussed “near misses.” That is quite different from the data now being requested from Albany. The BPC should not be hiding this data. It should be up for all of us to review.

The nature of the “near misses” is important. Right now we don’t have even quantitative data from BPC, let alone qualitative data which would enable us to determine what needs to be changed.

At Monday’s meeting, the BPC representative mentioned car doors and mirrors being clipped. Those things have happened, but that is not because of the dummy light: it is a result of cars going too fast while making the turn onto Old Post Road South in front of Orangeberry. In the 2018 news article, the BPC focused on high school students crossing the street by the dummy light. This is a serious concern, but again it is necessary to know the specifics of what occurred in order to make intelligent decisions.

The dummy light has been in Croton since 1926. Given the great danger which the light poses to pedestrians, there must be voluminous data and we should be able to detect whether the degree of danger has substantially increased in the last few years as pressure has grown to do something about the dummy light.

Significant changes are being pushed, and the Board of Trustees and the BPC should be more transparent about their goals and the data which is driving their decision-making.

The 2018 Journal-News article says: “Gallelli said the dummy light’s existence would most likely be one of the aspects of any evaluation.” That would seem to be borne out by the SIMCO contract proposal.

At the February 4, 2019 meeting, the position of the BPC was that the light should be put back to the blinking red, with additional stop signs, pedestrian crossing signs, and police surveillance cameras installed to catch motorists.

Leaving aside the issue of whether Croton would have to seek amendment of Vehicle & Traffic Law 1111 or if it could get one of the 100 cameras being sought by the County Board of Legislators, the underlying issue of putting up cameras in Croton is one which should be given a full airing. Perhaps I am the only one who just found this out, but I suspect that many people in Croton were taken by surprise.

Apart from the Big Brother aspect, putting up cameras at Croton intersections could result in increased risk from people slamming on brakes. There is evidence to suggest that there may be a decrease in T-bone accidents but an increase in rear-end accidents. In this regard, Croton residents may remember that the red Prius incident at the dummy light last year was initiated by a driver who stopped when the light turned yellow.

For many years, Board of Trustee discussions of the dummy light intersection were cognizant of the potential to box Croton into a corner on this issue. Now the BPC and the Board of Trustees have chosen to push a narrative that there are many near misses and endangerment of pedestrian children at the dummy light.

It is entirely possible that an outside consultant sensitive to liability issues may therefore come flat out and say that the dummy light should be torn down. Even if the dummy light remains, if there is ever an accident the BPC data on the “many near misses” is going to be fertile ground for litigation discovery, and the traffic consultant report is going to be Exhibit A.

If our Board of Trustees can manage to find a traffic consultant who is not under criminal indictment, perhaps next time they will be more transparent and candid about the process, and gather hard data before they make a decision which will dramatically change Croton forever.

For 93 years the historic dummy light has stood at the heart of Croton-on-Hudson, a testament to that small core part of us which stands steadfast in a fast-changing world. It has taken the BPC and Croton Board of Trustees less than 2 years to put the dummy light in jeopardy of extinction.

Paul Steinberg