SUMMIT, NJ - The seemingly omnipresent issue of parking was again the subject of lengthy discussion at the Summit Common Council's second meeting of November, the latest verbal iteration focusing on the issue of free parking downtown duing the holidays. Also on the agenda was the City's response during the 'Snowmageddon' event of November 15, which saw near-unprecedented gridlock during the mid-afternoon hours and continuing through the evening's commute.
With a great deal of business to discuss, both Council President David Naidu and Mayor Nora Radest kept their remarks to a minimum. Naidu did note the increasing problems with NJ Transit service and pointed out that part of Summit’s housing values are attributable to direct train service to Manhattan and -- that without reliable service -- these benefits would decline. He urged residents to reach out to their elected officials on the state and federal level to address the ongoing problems.
The meeting also saw the promotion of Summit Auxiliary Police Department Officer Danielle Luther to sergeant. She was sworn in by Mayor Radest as witnessed by Summit officers in dress uniform. After the swearing in and presentations by Reeves-Reed Arboretum and the Summit Housing Authority, the contentious issues of the November 15 snowstorm and holiday parking took up the majority of the more than 3-plus hour meeting.
Downtown Holiday Parking
Revisiting the issue tabled after the November 7 meeting, Council Member Mary Ogden presented two resolutions regarding parking during the holiday season. The first resolution was to authorize holiday overtime parking courtesy notices be issued, in lieu of a parking ticket, for the first time the 90-minute limit is exceeded. The second resolution, which led to lengthy discussion, was a proposal for free parking at the 90-minute parking spaces for on four consecutive Saturdays in December -- up from the two Saturdays discussed in a fortnight earlier.
After Ogden introduced the resolution, Naidu stated that his preference would be to have a two-week period during the holiday season with free parking at these spots. Referring to last year’s lengthy discussion of the same issue, he said that he would like to see the holiday parking issue addressed much earlier in the year so that there were not protracted discussions and debate about the issue just weeks before the holiday when everyone is under pressure to make a decision about the issue.
Naidu also said that he believed that Summit Downtown, Inc. should consider making a financial contribution to offset the cost of the free parking stating that, while he recognizes that the businesses bring value to the community, they still should make a contribution because the free parking “has value.” He also said that being part of a community is sharing both the benefits and the burdens.
Council Member Beth Little, who noted that she sits on the SDI Board of Trustees, said that the current parking fee structure was carefully thought out to maximize parking for downtown businesses. She said that the resolution was written for free Saturday parking so that downtown businesses would benefit. She felt that the two-week period may be taken advantage of by commuters and employees, not people who were looking to shop.
Ogden echoed these thoughts, stating that the kiosks have demonstrated turnover in parking spaces in the downtown and the resolution as proposed for free parking limited to Saturdays supported this turnover. Council Member Marjorie Fox said that she would support the two-week free parking for this year since that was what other communities did with the understanding that next year SDI would contribute.
Nancy Adams, SDI’s executive director, was called to the podium. She noted that free holiday parking was common practice, naming the nearby downtowns of South Orange and Westfield as examples. She said that since the new kiosk system replacing the meters -- and the new rates did not roll out as smoothly as expected -- she felt that the free parking during the holiday season would go a long way to assuage residents. She said that she felt that enforcement of the 90-minute limit was what would ensure turn-over. Addressing Council Member McTernan’s previous assertion that SDI “has no skin in the game,” she said that businesses in Summit contributed roughly $2.6 million towards schools and $1.2 million towards the general fund.
Councilman Bowman asked if the free parking was approved this year if SDI would consider contributing in 2019. Adams replied that she didn’t know the answer, but last year when asked to vote to contribute to the cost of free parking 9 out of 14 SDI Board members voted against it. She said SDI is spending up to $3,000 for advertising of the free parking. Several Council members said that they would like to hear the results of the advertising as well as the impact of the free parking on local business revenues.
After a great deal of additional discussion, the two resolutions were voted on separately. The resolution for issuing holiday notices for the first parking violation was passed unanimously. The second resolution for free parking on Saturdays passed by a majority vote. Naidu’s proposal for a two-week free parking period was vetoed by majority vote.
The votes cast were:
Parking Courtesy Notices - Passes
In Favor: Unanimous
Free Saturday Parking - Passes 4-3
In Favor: Council Members Steve Bowman, Mary Ogden, Matt Gould and Beth Little
Opposed: Council Members Marjorie Fox, Mike McTernan and David Naidu
Two Weeks Free Parking - Fails 4-3
In Favor: Council Members David Naidu, Marjorie Fox, Mike McTernan
Opposed: Council Members Mary Ogden, Steve Bowman, Beth Little and Matt Gould
November 15 Snowstorm
Prior to the parking discussion, City Administrator Michael Rogers reviewed how the City dealt with the unexpected ferocity of the November 15 snowstorm. He stated that pre-event planning began on November 12 with the monitoring the storm forecast. By November 14 storm preparation began, including filling the spreaders and preparing the plows.
Rogers noted that leading up to the storm the only consistent part of weather forecasts from the wide variety of sources was the time that the storm would hit. The morning of November 15, plows were mounted on the trucks and, by 1 p.m., salt spreading was initiated and sidewalks were treated. As of 3 p.m., plowing was initiated.
According to Rogers problems began to mount as spin outs and accidents caused grid lock. Two NJ Transit buses were stuck on Broad Street for two hours. People leaving highways for alternate routes and companies and schools releasing people at the same time also exacerbated the problems “making travel within our municipality nearly impossible.”
By 3:15 p.m., calls were placed to Union County for immediate assistance, but County crews were already stuck and could not get to Summit. As of 3:30 p.m. they requested that the joint dispatch center no longer submit requests to Department of Public Works (DPW) staff for assistance and the Summit Police Department directly communicated with DPW to get them to troubled spots as best they could. By 9 p.m., traffic finally abated and the DPW began to make progress working until 5 a.m. to clear roads. Following additional snow on Friday morning, efforts to clear roads and sidewalks from snow continued into Friday.
A total of 400 man hours of labor over the working day were realized by DPW staff. Rogers said that 150 tons of salt, 4,000 gallons of brine, 3,000 gallons of liquid calcium, and 750 pounds of bagged calcium chloride were applied to roads and sidewalks. He also reported that -- between 2 p.m. and 12 a.m. -- eight accidents were reported and 73 service calls were made to the Summit Public Department.
Following the report, President Naidu noted that this situation was not unique to Summit or even New Jersey and asked what lessons could be learned from the event. Rogers responded that improved communications, particularly with Celgene, the largest business in Summit would be beneficial.
Councilman Gould said that a number of factors came together during this storm and noted that people using apps to get out of traffic on major highways contributed to congestion in Summit as commuters sought alternate routes home. He asked Paul Cascais, Director of Community Services, speak to the issue of brining the roads ahead of the storm. Cascais said that brining the roads is not part of the protocol when a storm forecast includes rain as the November 15 storm was originally predicted. He noted that major highways including Routes 80, 280, and 287 were all brined but still were brought to a halt by massive gridlock. He also said that snow plowing cannot begin until 3” of snow is on the ground or the plows will be damaged and, by the time 3” had accumulated, traffic was already at a standstill. Since county trucks were unable to reach Summit, the DPW concentrated their efforts on keeping Broad Street and Morris Avenue cleared so that Overlook Medical Center remained accessible.
Gould proposed that communications be codified more formerly to avoid some of the issues that happened during the storm. McTernan suggested that, during the new year, the new Council could address this and come up with a holistic approach. He also talked about educating the public about what happens when they get out of their cars and walk away. Police Chief Robert Weck said that they received many calls from residents saying that they abandoned their vehicles and walked home and that, while he understood the desire to reach home, this exacerbated the gridlock and also hampered efforts to remove snow.
Weck emphasized that during snow events people cannot abandon their vehicles on streets and noted that it would be better to leave cars in commuter lots.