Inexperience Seems to Be a Factor

Poor Planning, Lack of Coordination Make A Mess of Traffic In Helix Repairs

Updated 16 weeks ago David Stone
Cars freely ignore traffic lights during untended hours on the Roosevelt Island Bridge helix.
Cars freely ignore traffic lights during untended hours on the Roosevelt Island Bridge helix.
Photo courtesy of Frank Farance

RIOC's inability to get local, experienced contractors involved in Roosevelt Island work leads to a predictable mess as Specialty Construction System, Inc.'s plan for traffic is plagued with rookie mistakes, and Public Safety is forced to scramble to untangle it.

As approval of the award to Specialty Construction System, a Westchester County company based in Mount Vernon, for repair work on the vital Roosevelt Island Bridge helix made its way through RIOC, Board Members Michael Shinozaki and Fay Christian questioned the contractor's experience, given the risks inherent in the project. But staff, citing the company's successful work last year on Tram platform repairs and other outside work, prevailed.

Shinozaki twice reminded fellow Board Members that they'd been burned previously with flawed staff recommendations.

The vote for approval was 5 to 2 with Shinozaki and Christian voting "No."

Now, with just one week of a projected three-month project under its belt, Specialty Construction System's inexperience has been exposed with hazardous conditions posing significant risks for residents as well as visitors.

The first complaint we received at The Daily landed on Wednesday when a caller reported barely missing having his car hit three times while trying to reach Main Street by way of the helix. The caller blamed PSD officers who were on the scene but appeared both confused and ineffective. That's not entirely fair, however.

PSD, according to RIOC sources, was not supposed to be responsible for traffic control but was forced to act without preparation when a required MPT plan proposed by Specialty Construction System and approved by RIOC administration failed from Day One.

That plan oriented around flagmen during limited hours and voluntary driver compliance with a sequencing of traffic lights. Voluntary driver compliance is not generally a New York City attribute. It's likely more fitting in suburban areas like Mount Vernon.

The Maintenance and of Protection Traffic plan - MPT - is now being discussed between the contractor and RIOC, according to Vice President of Operations Shelton Haynes. Haynes also notes that he will meet with the Department of Transportation on Monday to look at traffic coordination.

Although multiple RIOC departments are now scrambling to fix unanticipated problems and PSD officers in visible patrol cars seem have brought some control to what verged on chaos, adequate planning and contractor screening should have avoided them in the first place.

Complaints are being made again about RIOC's failure to recruit more experienced, better quality bidders from local pools of contractors. The lament about how hard it is to get businesses to work on Roosevelt Island has seemed to many to be more about RIOC's methods than the reality of what's available.

By Thursday night, with no solution to the chaos apparently in sight, Frank Farance was out documenting the mess. Among his observations...

  • Cars are running the red lights, both southbound and northbound. 
  • These cars meet head-on midway on the helix. 
  • Pedestrians using the crosswalk alter the timing and congest traffic.
  • The Stop Sign conflicts with the automated traffic control devices, and it slows down the emptying of traffic from the helix.

Accidents involving cars and/or pedestrians is a major concern. Less visible but even more dangerous is the risk of blocked emergency vehicle access to the Island. Minutes count with critical medical conditions, and it's easy to imagine fire trucks stalled on the bridge.

Keep in mind that we are not even looking at the quality of actual workmanship on this project yet.

Prompted by Farance, late Friday afternoon, RIOC issued a press release: Island officials urge patient driving during Helix repair.

"Impatient car and truck drivers have routinely skipped the directions of officers, roadway flagmen and even traffic lights this week to create 'several potentially dangerous head-on situations,'" it quoted PSD Chief Jack McManus.

It was unclear why confused drivers were exclusively being blamed for chaos created by poor planning and execution of a traffic plan by RIOC's contractor.

By Sunday, after PSD mobilized - Chief McManus was on the scene until at least early evening on Saturday - delays seemed to be the thorniest issue as officers made themselves visible and controlled traffic flow. That is, the fix for a bad traffic control plan is being underwritten out of RIOC's budget.

Monday morning's rush hour will present new challenges with unpredictable results. Fortunately, PSD will be on the scene along with contractor personnel.

Helix repair work is expected to continue for three more months.

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