By Tony E. Windsor

A recent Laurel Mayor and Council meeting provided a follow up to a traffic concern that was expressed at an earlier meeting by a member of council. During a January public meeting Councilwoman Cheryl Martin expressed her concerns about what she deems “an atrocious” traffic situation along Cooper Street.

“The traffic going up and down that street is atrocious,” she said. “We all have to give one another leeway as we travel that street. This is a very dangerous situation. Those of us who live here are aware that we will need to drive slow and allow each other the room needed to move down that street. But, what about those who do not know?”

After discussions, Mayor John Shwed assured Martin that the Public Works Department and police department would meet with Town Manager Jamie Smith and develop recommendations to address the traffic situation.

During the Feb. 16 meeting of council the issue was placed back on the agenda. Martin said her concerns have been enhanced by the fact that the boat ramp at the Mill Dam just east of Cooper Street will present an additional influx of traffic, many comprised of people who are not familiar with the narrow driving conditions along Cooper Street.

“Most of the people who drive down Cooper Street are aware that this becomes a one lane street and someone has to yield to oncoming traffic,” she said. “When you go around the bend in the road it is a speed limit of 25 miles per hour. That is too fast to navigate that bend. Some motorists take the turn wide. I believe we should reduce the speed to 15 miles per hour. This traffic creates a bottleneck and you know this.”

Martin also said that in some cases there is at least one vehicle that parks on Cooper Street and creates a visibility hazard for traffic traveling north toward Rt. 24. She thinks this could be addressed by having the vehicle park further back.

Mayor Shwed said he is completely against reducing the speed limit to 15 miles per hour along Cooper Street and he also disagrees with any suggestions to impact the parking along Cooper Street. Prohibiting on-street parking along Cooper Street is one option as part of recommendations presented to the council by the police department and public works.

“Whenever I become involved in issues such as this I try to put myself in the shoes of those people who live along the street in question,” he said. “One thing I know about Cooper Street from the top of Governor’s Avenue to that hairpin turn, is that the residents have very little off-street parking available to them. I do not think the answer to this problem is having the residents not be allowed to park on the street. I do not support that.”

Martin assured Shwed that she did not support prohibiting residents from parking along Cooper Street either.

Shwed also said he does not feel there is evidence to support making adjustments such as speed reduction along Cooper Street. “When the state makes a decision about installing new traffic signals they do so based on data,” he said. “I’ve been driving Cooper Street since 1966 and I am not aware of any accidents that have occurred over that period of time. However, the data that has been presented to council regarding Cooper Street indicates there have been no accidents in the last 10 years. Though it is a tricky street with some traffic issues there have been no accidents.”

He went on to say that he believes that because motorists do pull off to the side of the roadway to yield to oncoming traffic, it helps to reduce the speed of overall traffic along the street. He says this is typical for other streets in the town, including the one-lane bridge at Poplar Street and the bridge over the Mill Dam. “We also have this same situation sometimes on West Street during large funerals due to cars parked in front of the funeral home,” Shwed said.

Another recommendation to address traffic concerns along Cooper Street included making Cooper Street one way traffic. “I do not support making Cooper Street one way; this would be an inconvenience to the residents who live on that street,” he said. “I think I am supportive of the recommendation that stipulates making no changes. If anything, perhaps a sign could be posted warning of a ‘dangerous curve ahead’ and recommend 15 miles per hour going around it. Maybe that is reasonable, I don’t know.”

Martin held fast to her urging of the speed limit being reduced to 15 miles per hour given the “hairpin” turn on Cooper Street.

Council President Chris Calio said he agrees with Martin that 25 miles per hour is too fast for motorists to navigate the bend in the road, so he would not oppose a speed reduction. Councilman Jonathon Kellam inquired as to whether it would be necessary to post a sign prior to the change in speed limit from 25 to 15 miles per hour in order ensure motorists are fairly alerted to the change.

“It has been 25 miles per hour for as long as I have been here,” he said. ”If you suddenly change the speed limit at a point along the street without proper warning, I fear we may be accused of implementing a ‘speed trap.’ I know that is not our intention, but it is still something to consider.”

Town Manager Jamie Smith said she had discussions with Police Chief Dan Wright and they feel that Cooper Street is not conducive to a drop in speed limit for just one section. “If you reduce the speed at the curve, you have to post another sign warning of the speed reduction and Cooper Street is not a lengthy road to begin with. We recommend that if there is a consideration to reduce the speed for the curve, we simply reduce the speed to 15 miles per hour along Cooper Street from Willow Street to Rt. 24. I think that would be the best route to go,” she said.

Shwed disagreed with the recommendation. “I’m not in favor of that, Holy mackerel. I tell you, to slow a whole road down to 15 miles per hour? I don’t agree with that,” he said.

Chief Wright told the council that he timed the drive from Willow Street to Rt. 24 and it took 17 seconds. “I don’t think reducing the speed to 15 miles per hour would increase anyone’s drive time more than 10 seconds,” he said. “If you change the speed limit to 15 miles per hour just for making the curve in the road, people will still come around the bend at 25 miles per hour. I am not a proponent of setting up speed enforcement for a 15 mile per hour speed limit.”

It was decided by council to reduce the speed limit on Cooper Street to 15 miles per hour. Smith said she will draft a resolution to bring back to council at the next public meeting for final approval.