By Jay Cook |
HOLMDEL – It happened yet again last week.
Around 6:30 a.m. July 13, a tractor trailer traveling along Laurel Avenue toward Route 35 crashed hard into the NJ Transit rail line bridge, which carries passengers on the popular North Jersey Coast line. First responders rushed to the scene. The road was closed for an hour for cleanup and traffic snarls thwarted morning commuters from reaching the parkway.
It is the latest accident in a history of perplexing collisions involving the plain bridge with the yellow checkerboard warning banner. Tractor trailer drivers, seemingly oblivious to the height limitation, have smashed into that train trestle four times since March. But it goes back further than that. Since 2012, it’s been the site of over 40 collisions, according to Holmdel Police.
“It’s a nightmare,” Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-13) told The Two River Times. “We really have to come up with something better.”
And that’s what officials hope to do. DiMaso, a former Holmdel mayor and Monmouth County Freeholder, convened a meeting with officials from NJ Transit, New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT), Monmouth County and Holmdel Township at her Red Bank office July 18 to discuss options for a solution. Everything is on the table, she said.
“At what point is that bridge not safe anymore?” DiMaso questioned. “You can drop a glass once or twice, but the third time it’s definitely breaking.”
Police departments from Holmdel and Middletown have also had enough, said Sgt. Vincent Imperato of the Holmdel Township Police Department’s Traffic Safety Unit. A June 4 joint letter was sent to NJ Transit, NJDOT and Monmouth County demanding all agencies to look at the issue that’s troubled both municipalities for years.
“We want to prevent any further accidents,” said Imperato. “We’ve been lucky that there haven’t been any significant injuries there, so we want to prevent anything significant from happening.”
What’s The Problem?
So far, government bureaucracy has led Holmdel and Middletown to a dead end. South Laurel Avenue and Laurel Avenue, which are split by the bridge, happen to be part of the county’s roadway system, listed on online mapping applications and atlases as County Road 52. The train bridge, however, is state property.
Because the municipalities cannot control the road with local ordinances which could add more traffic signs or lights, they have to yield to other entities by filing formal requests and applications.
A lack of action from state stakeholders bothers Holmdel Committeeman Mike Nikolis, who said “there’s really nothing (Holmdel) can do” about reaching a resolution on the municipal level.
“I have my own issues with New Jersey Transit,” said Nikolis. “They can’t keep their bathrooms clean. You think they’re going to fix a bridge?”
Authorities from both towns detailed a laundry list of factors they believe contribute to the number of collisions with the bridge.
For one, the bridge’s height clearance is lower than other nearby overpasses in Middletown and Holmdel, by about one or two feet. The Laurel Avenue bridge’s clearance is 12 feet 5 inches.
Compare that to the bridge at Newman-Springs Road, known as CR-520, which has a clearance of 13-feet 5-inches when the roadway goes under a Garden State Parkway bridge by the Exit 109 interchange in Middletown. The overpass along Route 35 North underneath Normandy Road through Middletown is another 13 inches higher, at 14 feet 6 inches.
A lack of proper signage and sufficient turn-around space also plays a role, authorities noted. Height clearance signs are posted about 2,400 feet and 1,200 feet away from the bridge on either side, but that may not be enough. Space to stop and turn after passing those signs is limited on both approaches and would ultimately slow or stop traffic, regardless.
“Almost on an everyday basis, we’re there stopping traffic having trucks back up to side streets that are a decent distance away from the bridge,” said Imperato. “That also causes a traffic condition there.”
A Recent Uptick In Crashes
A string of four crashes in the last five months spurred authorities to ask legislators and state agencies for help.
The July 13 accident is the most recent offense. After striking the bridge, the driver was able to back up and turn around, but that didn’t help the cause. Police shut down Laurel Avenue for nearly an hour to clean up the debris scattered from the accident.
On June 10, a tractor trailer became wedged under the bridge. A heavy-duty towing company was called to dislodge the 40-foot trailer. Laurel Avenue was closed for about an hour as authorities cleaned up the scene. No injuries were reported by police.
Three weeks earlier on May 21, another tractor trailer traveling in the opposite direction – away from Route 35 – became wedged underneath the bridge. The trailer was so squeezed in that a towing company again had to come out and extract it. Police reported no injuries in this crash.
On March 19, a FedEx tractor trailer truck was traveling northbound on South Laurel Avenue when the driver disregarded the height clearance and smashed into the bridge. The driver was taken to a local hospital with minor injuries but a quick look at the carnage showed significant damage to the vehicle. The trailer was ripped away from the truck and sliced in half and dozens of boxes were flung across the roadway.
Drivers in each of those three instances were given multiple summonses for disregarding bridge height restrictions.
Some of those trucking companies, like FedEx and Schneider National, did not return requests for comment about the circumstances of the accidents.
The March 19 incident, in particular, triggered the June 4 letter to the county and state agencies, Imperato said.
“The FedEx truck was the big one because if there were cars coming in either direction, there would have been a problem,” he said. “Those heavy boxes flying off really could have hurt somebody.”
Past accidents have also taken a toll on the bridge. An NJ Transit spokesperson told The Two River Times that, after every accident, NJ Transit “thoroughly inspects the structure to verify its structural integrity.”
Those investigations led to roadway closures in late 2016 when Laurel Avenue was shut down on both ends as NJ Transit conducted repairs on the bridge infrastructure.
What’s The Solution?
With years of crash data and police reports backlogged in police systems, local authorities and elected officials have the means to find a solution to the accidents happening on Laurel Avenue. What the answer might be, however, differs from agency to agency. The choice ultimately comes down to infrastructure upgrades versus increased traffic diversion methods.
Monmouth County Freeholder Director Thomas A. Arnone told The Two River Times the county is receiving an approximately $800,000 grant from the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority to perform a “detailed concept development study” for the Laurel Avenue NJ Transit bridge. Once the study is completed, Monmouth County will do analysis and “determine the conditions to do some improvements there.”
“Without a doubt” a solution is needed, Arnone said, because of “safety reasons and quality of life reasons.”
Lt. Neal Hansen, of the Middletown Township Police Department’s Traffic and Safety Bureau, said past talks with NJ Transit have yielded two ideas, neither being totally feasible. One option would be for NJ Transit to rip up and reengineer the railroad tracks about a mile before and after the bridge crossing to raise and widen the bridge’s clearance. The other option would be to mill down into Laurel Avenue and take away roadway height to add more clearance. But major cost issues and environmental disturbances could halt those plans, he said.
Local police, however, believe more signage and modern tools could solve the issue.
Hansen said officials could follow the model in place at the West Front Street NJ Transit bridge in Red Bank. With a clearance of only 10-feet 11-inches, trucks of all sizes have crashed into that overpass. The height clearance is posted four times in the immediate area and there are about a half-dozen blinking lights to catch motorists’ attention, Hansen said, all in an attempt to limit low-speed accidents.
“Yeah, you’re comparing apples to oranges to a certain extent, but it’s sort of the same thing,” Hansen acknowledged. “You’ve done all this lighting over there; why don’t we have the same type of lighting on South Laurel?”
Another possibility would be to install traffic sensors along the approaches, Hansen noted. A tractor trailer exceeding the permissible height would trigger a notice on a message board along the roadway and alert the driver to change course immediately.
While different solutions are discussed, stakeholders remain concerned about the nature, volume and general impact these accidents have on that thoroughfare connecting Route 35 to the Garden State Parkway.
“It’s going to be an issue,” DiMaso said. “I don’t know how they fix it easily with the amount of train traffic there is, but we’re hoping to figure that out.”
This article was first published in the July 19-26, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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