Should the proposed $750 million Valley Hospital expansion go through as planned, traffic would either be improved or remain at current levels, traffic expert Joseph Staigar said Monday night at the village council's second hearing on the proposed "H-Zone" ordinance. However, there's a big caveat to that – those conditions only exist if Valley Hospitals claims are to be believed, he said, and there was skepticism on whether that's more fact than fiction.
Staigar, the expert brought on by the planning board during its over three-year process that resulted in an affirmative vote to amend the Master Plan, testified in front of the council that he had relied "on good faith" from Valley's "literature" to determine ultimate traffic impacts.
When questioned by several members of the village council, Staigar admitted that he wasn't quite sure Valley had been telling the truth, as the premise that Valley's proposed expansion would incur a large cost and not increase activity, he said, didn't logically hold water.
Skepticism on Valley's claims
"I was skeptical," he testified, adding that in his own analysis he determined that Valley's traffic output as it currently exists greatly exceeds what it should, meaning an expansion along with intersection improvements are a logical means to improving traffic issues.
He said the hospital contended it's too big for its current space and only wants to be positioned as a "typical" hospital, and said there would be no traffic increase at all; they only wanted the same service and same amount of people with more floor space.
“Not just from a traffic perspective but from a business perspective, you need a return on your investment," he said in elaborating on his skepticism. That means, in his experience, increasing the intensity. Should Valley double in size and increase the traffic proportionately, Staigar said his calculations indicate it would equal out to current levels with various intersection improvements.
Ultimately, expansion or not, the intersections around the hospital need work, Staigar said when questioned by Councilman Paul Aronsohn.
Proposed traffic improvements
Regardless of whether Valley's to be believed, Staigar said the current conditions at N. Van Dien and Linwood are massively problematic. They grade out as an "F" and very often feature traffic snaking up toward Rt. 17. Traffic, he said, can be "gridlocked" for up to 20 minutes during some hours of the day. Compounding the issue, school children from B.F. often walk between cars, creating a dangerous situation that he said needs to be addressed one way or another. The intersections would either be a "C" or a "D" with the proposed improvements, Staigar said.
Suggested plans would add a southbound left-turn lane on N. Van Dien. Also, a right-turn lane on Linwood Ave going west-bound would be added, as well as a right-turn only option on John Street. Additionally, improved signalling would implemented.
East Glen and North Van Dien were also targeted as a problem intersection, grading out as an “F”. Still, it would need more studying for improvements to be made, he said.
Staigar recommended parking garages be interconnected to mitigate the possibility that Linwood entrances become a choke point for traffic, and also recommended that during construction Valley staff be bused in from another site to help with parking.
The parking management plan made by Valley’s engineering firm, Burton Engineering, was “lacking,” he found. An analysis of impact on Meadowbrook was also not done, he said, and that was “an oversight.” Beyond that, he said some of the firm's claims on traffic were not in line with his views, because the firm "isolated" certain driveways that didn't account for actual traffic patterns.
Staigar recommended those improvements be done “at the very early stages” of construction.
Shift changes were also problematic, he said, as they often coincided with peak morning and afternoon commutes and/or school children leaving. Resident Tom Kossoff, like Staigar, recommended Valley alter the shift change schedule to provide some relief.
Deputy Mayor Tom Riche pointed to yearly incremental upticks in traffic that might render those new grades back to "F" status, a point Staigar conceded. Staigar said he'd be concerned with 100 more car trips an hour, up from today's peak rate of 920.
CRR says studies are deficient, traffic would increase up to 75 percent
John Lamb, attorney for opposition group Concerned Residents of Ridgewood (CRR), said due diligence wasn't done on studies. According to Lamb, in the latest addition of the ITE traffic "bible," there exists under the definition of a hospital a section for outpatient services.
“So essentially that ITE manual [cited in the Valley traffic studies done to date] does not include something that’s called a clinic or an outpatient service. Could that not be the explanation for why there’s so much activity here?” he asked rhetorically.
He said Valley has two components – traditional inpatient as well as outpatient services, the latter of which he said was the "wave of the future."
Because Valley only went based on the number of beds in analyzing potential traffic upticks, they estimated only six trips for three beds would be added.
“Does anybody really think…that a hospital is going to spend $750 million dollars and not have an increase in business to generate that?" he asked. "That defies belief.”
According to calculations including the outpatient services, the increase will be upwards of 75 percent, he said. Besides, Lamb said, the traffic analysis only covers Phase 1, not even the second phase of construction, in his view a critical misstep.
Resident Kathy Benson said there's no inclusion of impact on Travell Elementary and added that a real projection of traffic can't be done given how much can change in the scope of time.
Resident Lawrence Kelty, of Columbia Road, testified that the point that Valley is inherently beneficial under planning law shouldn't give it justification to expand, noting he didn't want the Vatican in Van Neste Square either, although that too would be "inherently beneficial".
Valley responds to outpatient claims, supporters say Valley is trustworthy
Valley's general counsel and Vice President, Robin Goldfischer, filling in for Charles Collins, did not address traffic issues in particular. However, in answering past questions, Goldfischer said the reason Valley went the planning board route was at the behest of the Board of Adjustment, which rallied them to develop a "long-term plan" with the planning board.
She again defended the plan as a "Renewal" and not an expansion because health care is "ever-changing," she said, and Valley "must evolve" to serve the needs of the community. The proposal is to accommodate greater use of new diagnostic technology and treatment rooms, not a grab for more patients.
Regarding the contention that Valley is shooting for more outpatient services, Goldfischer responded the campus size they have is "sufficiently sized" and is "maintained predominantly for inpatient services."
"Valley maintains upwards of ten other locations for certain outpatient and administrative services, which we continue to develop," she added.
Valley volunteer Gwenn Hauck rebuffed claims the hospital was not trustworthy–which some have contended–by remarking that she has no reason not to trust them, the hospital "would never hurt school children," and at the end of the day while some residents would be adversely affected by construction, she implored the council and audience to consider "the greater good for so many people."
Added David Lipson, a physician and director of plastic surgery at Valley who's seen numerous other hospitals close due to mismanagement and other reasons: "In medicine, one has to keep up with technology or one will fail. There's no two ways about it."
"And by the way, I have never heard Valley lie," he said.
Councilman Stephen Wellinghorst was absent Monday night. The next scheduled meeting is on October 13.