Neighbors in Allegheny West take to the streets to fight for their traffic lights.

Intersection at 32nd & Allegheny

It took two deaths and a mass protest to get a traffic light at 32nd and Allegheny almost 40 years ago but a recent PennDOT project is threatening to take it away. Neighbors in the area, many unaware that the lights were scheduled for removal until recently, weren’t about to let that happen.

So during a Friday afternoon rush hour earlier this month, approximately 50 of them barricaded the intersection and carried signs into the street, causing buses and cars to back up for blocks all along Allegheny and triggering traffic snarls on surrounding roads.

They say there’s no need for this light, or the ones at 28th or 26th either,” said Rose Cooper, the protest’s main organizer and president of the RAH Civic Association, “but people have gotten killed on Allegheny because the cars go too fast. And their solution is to take out these lights. That’s gonna speed cars up all the way to Hunting Park. That’s crazy.”

Protestors chanted behind her, some using megaphones to share their stories of racing cars and near misses on Allegheny Ave.

Cooper had spoken with State Senator Hughes and Councilman Jones earlier in the day but was skeptical of their ability to keep the lights. “They said they’d look into it, but I’m not waiting. I’m pushing it because this is too important,” she said. “And flashing lights or whatever they’re trying to put in these intersections ain’t gonna cut it.”

The flashing lights (aka “rapid rectangular flashing beacons”) are part of a $6.9 million PennDOT project to upgrade Allegheny Avenue along a 4.5 mile stretch. At intersections that don’t have sufficient traffic volume, existing traffic lights will be replaced by flashing beacons, ADA compliant curb ramps, pedestrian countdown timers, additional street lighting, and signing upgrades, according to Rich Montanez, Deputy Commissioner of Transportation for Philadelphia. “We don’t have a choice to keep those lights,” he said, because the project is federally funded and federal standards require meeting minimum traffic volumes. “Unfortunately 26th, 28th, and 32nd streets don’t qualify.”

Rose Cooper speaks with police sergeant

He also added that the plan had been presented to the community at a public meeting on February 18, 2014 at Mercy Vocational High School. Cooper agreed that there was a meeting but said “they told us they were studying it and looking for neighborhood feedback. Everybody there said no — keep the lights. They never said another word about it to us, not even if they were moving ahead with it or not. We only found out it was starting because Mark Green called Representative Youngblood’s office.”

Standing near the protest in the shade of a tree, Josh Cohen, Councilman Jones’ Deputy Chief of Staff, understood the neighborhood’s anger and agreed with the need for the traffic lights. “We’re working with Senator Hughes because it’s a state project and we’ll advocate for keeping these lights. We had something similar happen in Overbrook last year. Lights were removed and it made the situation worse. It was clear the they made the area safer. Councilman Jones was able to obtain some capital funds, about $150,000, to replace some of the lights that were removed.”

Cohen added that the flashing beacons might slow motorists for a time due to their novelty, but he didn’t believe it would provide the most effective traffic calming in the long term. “A red light ensures that traffic comes to a full stop,” he said.

Mark Green with protest sign

One neighbor, Al Green, believed that not only should the lights remain but he believed they should be synchronized to prevent speeders from timing them. “I live around the corner on 35th and you can hear cars racing sometimes from all the way over there. If they can make the first light in 32nd, they’ll just gun it the entire way.”

Mark Green, the 38th Democratic Ward Leader and a long-time resident of Allegheny Ave., agreed that the lights should be synchronized. He’s seen up close what the speeders can do. “James Barnes got killed at 25th Street two or three years ago — he was all mangled up. The car knocked his body 20 feet away from where he got hit. They act like the road’s safe enough now to remove the lights. It’s not.”

Green remained hopeful community action would triumph again. “We wouldn’t have gotten the lights if we didn’t come out years ago to demand it, and if we don’t protest now, they’ll take ‘em away. I’ve seen too much on Allegheny to let that happen.”

UPDATE 5/31

Senator Hughes and Councilman Jones informed Rose they’ve persuaded PennDOT to perform their studies again for the three Allegheny intersections in question.