With its multiple circular ramps heading to and from different locations, the entrance to the barrier island from Route 37 has its advantages. Unlike other Jersey Shore barrier island destinations like Long Beach Island and Ocean City, where traffic flows directly over a bridge onto local streets, traffic is dispersed to the north, south or east, cutting down on the frequency of the massive traffic delays that plague other resort towns.
The down side, however, is that Seaside Heights has been largely cut off from its own bayfront for decades. Lanes and, in some cases, layers of highway infrastructure separate the borough’s residential streets from its once-thriving bayshore, and despite significant efforts over the years to lobby the state of New Jersey to improve access via pedestrian bridges or other means, Trenton has never saw fit to fund better crossings. After Route 35 was rebuilt following Superstorm Sandy, there was one improvement: the installation of what is known as a HAWK – a High-Intensity Active Crosswalk system that enables pedestrians to activate a series of lights that stops traffic on the highway for under a minute.
The HAWK connects a pedestrian crosswalk between the area of the Hugh J. Boyd Elementary School and Sunset Beach, the borough’s bay beach which features swimming, a boat ramp, water rentals and a restaurant. The HAWK signal, however, is unique in New Jersey and has occasionally led to confusion among drivers, but has nonetheless been seen as a minor improvement in pedestrian safety. Still, a lingering concern by officials is that the signal simply cannot be seen and interpreted by drivers in time to realize a person may be crossing six highway lanes on foot.
“For years, we were asking the state for the pedestrian bridge when I was a young councilman, because there were numerous near-accidents,” said Mayor Anthony Vaz. “To the best of my knowledge there has been one fatality, and that’s one too many. It was a local kid who was killed while walking over to the bay.”
The answer for most residents and visitors has been to drive to the bay beach or avoid the area altogether, removing a Jersey Shore tradition from some families’ itineraries.
The state Department of Transportation still seems unwilling to invest in a bridge, however this week it was revealed that the agency plans on installing a second HAWK signal to connect pedestrian crosswalks over the vast expanse across Route 35’s southerly route closer to the Seaside Park border. This HAWK would link what is now a small pedestrian pathway originating on a huge expanse of unused land between highway lanes to the Dock Outfitters property.
The state is also proposing a third pedestrian crosswalk device closer to Bay Boulevard, near the Seaside Heights-Seaside Park border. This signal – known as a RRFB, or Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon – would connect a little-used pedestrian path from Bay Boulevard across the lanes of Routes 35 North where the highway splits and curves toward the Route 37 bridge, as opposed to flowing northward into Ortley Beach.
The RRFB device, unlike the HAWK, does not feature red lights stretching across the roadway that stops traffic. Instead, it utilizes amber (yellow) flashing lights to alert drivers that there may be a pedestrian attempting to cross.
Modifications to Existing HAWK Crossing:
Proposed New HAWK Crossing:
Proposed New “Flashing Light” Crossing
For Seaside Heights, any effort to encourage better – and safer – access to the bayfront is important, the mayor explained.
The Dock Outfitters property is owned by the borough and leased by the business. A fishing pier there is open to the public, and recently the borough completed a project to install a living shoreline adjacent to a gravel parking area there. The pier has proven particularly popular with tourists – an episode of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” was even shot there, depicting cast members crabbing – seeking to try their hand at fishing or to rent a boat from The Dock. Generally, however, the site is accessed by car due to the separation of the highway.
The borough council this week met in a work session meeting to consider the state’s proposal and offer feedback. The consensus among officials was that the existing HAWK signal near the bay beach needs to be more visible, and drivers need to be warned earlier that they may be asked to come to an abrupt stop from highway speed. The council will also request that the state scrap the plan for the small RRFB crossing light in favor of a third HAWK signal that will allow pedestrians to cross over the northbound spur of the highway from Bay Boulevard.
Visibility is key, the mayor said.
“It’s not as visible as I think it should be,” he said of the current HAWK signal. “If you’re moving down Route 35 in either direction and you’re going 45 m.p.h., it comes up pretty quick. I’m happy we got it, but I’m not as happy with the way it’s situated.”
Christopher Vaz, the borough administrator, said the state’s plans forwarded to his office included extra signage for the existing HAWK signal, which was a welcome addition. But all agreed that the third HAWK should be added to the project if it is safe to do so.
There was no immediate timeline for the project, nor a guarantee as to whether it will come to fruition, but officials said they would welcome any improvements that are offered.
“We’ve made a strong effort to improve our bayfront areas, but people need to be able to get there safely,” the mayor said.
Addition: Hawk Rules
Though the state law dictating that vehicles must stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk is well known, the rules for stopping at a HAWK signal are a bit unique. According to officials, here is what drivers are required to do when they face such a light pattern:
- When a pedestrian presses the walk button, the lights across the roadway will immediately begin flashing yellow, before turning to solid yellow. The solid yellow signals drivers in the same way a traditional yellow light would signal them that the light is about to turn red.
- Next, the lights will turn solid red to drivers, and the pedestrian will see a “walk” signal. Drivers must stop to let the pedestrian cross.
- After a short period of time, the red lights will begin flashing. This means that pedestrians can finish crossing if they are already in the intersection, but may no longer start crossing. At this point, even though the light is flashing red, vehicles may proceed through after coming to a complete stop, and ensuring no pedestrians are in the midst of crossing.