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Fatal accident renews calls for sidewalks in New Milford

March 15, 2019 GMT

NEW MILFORD — A blue makeshift cross stands behind a small wooden seat next to a pot of flowers on Route 7, just in front of the John Pettibone Community Center.

It marks where Joseph Portunato, 24, was killed as he crossed the road on Aug. 15, 2015. It’s not even a football field’s distance from where John Murphy, 60, was fatally struck Thursday night.

The most recent pedestrian death has reinvigorated a years-long discussion about the need for sidewalks and other safety features along the busy corridor, including better lighting and crosswalks.

“Anyone who drives on Route 7, knows it’s an unsafe road,” said Tom O’Brien, an avid cyclist who has spent years advocating for sidewalks and bike paths in town.

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Seven pedestrians have been hit on the 5.5 mile stretch of road in the past 10 years, including three near the Pickett District Road intersection in the past five years alone. The majority of these accidents happened when it was dark or twilight.

Of them, three were fatal. In addition to Murphy and Portunato, Bruno Morini, 89, was killed in December 2009 while crossing Route 7 from the Willow Springs condominium complex around 5 p.m.

Change in thinking

A common complaint is that these safety measures should have been added when the initial Route 7 widening project was done more than a decade ago. The sidewalks and crosswalks were removed partly due to opposition from property owners, according to previous articles.

O’Brien said it was “a travesty” the state and town didn’t include sidewalks and crosswalks then. He said the current design doesn’t accommodate multi-modal transportation.

“We have a great bus service but when you get off, you’re on Route 7,” O’Brien said.

Like other area towns, New Milford has tried to fix that in recent years, thanks in part to the state Department of Transportation’s push for “complete streets,” which includes bike lanes and other amenities and shifts the focus from just cars to other travel methods. Brookfield added sidewalks to its Four Corners area and Danbury is adding sections of sidewalk.

In New Milford, the approach takes on a piecemeal fashion. New businesses along Route 7 are required to add sidewalks as part of the zoning approval process. This has resulted in “orphaned sidewalks” where sections don’t connect to anything, but the hope is that this will one day be a full network.

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Town engineer Dan Stanton said the Public Works Department has been working with the mayor and a grant writer to get funding to add sidewalks outside of town properties and along major corridors.

“There aren’t really any sidewalks on Route 7 where we’re seeing pedestrians walking to work and other destinations,” he said.

Though the town has been discussing sidewalks for years, dozens of residents took to Facebook calling for renewed efforts to add sidewalks in key areas, including by McDonald’s where Thursday’s accident happened and by Walmart and Kohls.

Some also shared how they don’t have cars and have to walk along the road from the bus, which can be difficult and dangerous, especially when it snows and the shoulder is even narrower or nonexistent.

Some commenters questioned the funding source for it and said pedestrians should stay away from that road unless it was absolutely necessary.

Recent efforts

The Town Council is now discussing two sidewalks grants that would add sidewalks in some of these areas.

The Community Connectivity Grant, which doesn’t require a local match, will let the town install sidewalks outside of Pettibone.

New Milford also received a $1.7 million federal Transportation Alternatives grant, which requires a 20 percent local match, which could be about $400,000. Council members are debating where this money could come from, as well as if it’s an expense the town can handle right now.

The original proposal was to use this to install sidewalks from the condos to the high school and then to the Savings Bank of Danbury. The second piece is by Litchfield Crossings and the third section will be from Canterbury School to downtown.

At the presentation to Town Council last month, Public Works Director Mike Zarba said these sections were selected because it was where they saw the most pedestrians.

But council members are considering different sites, such as from Veteran’s Bridge to McDonald’s and Walmart to Willow Springs.

O’Brien said he rides his bike on Route 7 about once a week and tries to avoid it as much as possible.

“It’s not a comfortable feeling,” he said. “I try to get off that road whenever I can. When I get on a side road my blood pressure drops 30 points. It’s tense.”

He said he’s also been advocating for crosswalks at the traffic light intersections for years. Crossing buttons are already on all of these intersections from the Big Y to Pettibone, but he said no one knows they are there because there aren’t any walk signs or crosswalks.

O’Brien added that all of these traffic calming and safety measures were needed, but added those not in cars should also try to make themselves as visible as possible by wearing bright colors.

“When I ride my bike I wear bright yellow and have flashers on my bike,” he said. “If you can make yourself visible, that helps.”

Murphy, the latest pedestrian victim, was wearing dark clothing, police said.

kkoerting@newstimes.com; 203-731-3345

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