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Leonia Road Closures: Both Legal And Guess What? They Worked

The navigation app to the left, just before Monday's rush hour, shows open roads. On the right: The result between 4-9 p.m. (same for 6-10 a.m.).
The navigation app to the left, just before Monday's rush hour, shows open roads. On the right: The result between 4-9 p.m. (same for 6-10 a.m.). Photo Credit: COURTESY: Leonia PD

LEONIA, N.J. -- Leonia Police Chief Thomas Rowe was headed to work Tuesday morning in yet another George Washington Bridge-bound traffic jam when he checked Waze -- which told him NOT to take a borough side street but to stay on Route 95 instead.

In only its second day, Leonia's internationally-publicized rush-hour street closing initiative was working.

The key: Navigation companies are programming the "Do Not Enter" restrictions on five dozen local streets into their GPS apps.

"For four or five years now, the apps told you to come directly through Leonia," Rowe said. "Not anymore.

"The bridge was backed up for over an hour," the chief said, "but there were borough streets that are usually packed with cars that were empty -- and some with only a few.

"This is exactly what we wanted," he told Daily Voice. "In two short days, residents could navigate the town without massive traffic jams."

Rowe has had to navigate major media interviews since the Borough Council last month enacted an ordinance that closed roughly 60 roads to non-residents during the weekday morning and evening rushes (6-10 a.m. and 4-9 p.m.).

He's also had to handle the same question over and again: How can this be legal?

"It's simple," Rowe said. "The Supreme Court has ruled that towns have the right to regulate traffic if they have an identifiable need or situation that is hazardous. It's the same as parking restrictions that allow only residents."

His department and the borough "have an obligation to make sure our residents are safe," the chief said. "We have the authority to make such decisions.

"If we had a major crime problem, would we not do something about it? That's a public safety concern, just like this is."

Three years ago, a woman was struck and dragged to her death during what were 90-minute delays at the bridge. What's more, the borough relies on volunteer firefighters who "must be able to get out of their driveways," Rowe noted.

"If we didn't do something, we would have had more fatalities," he said.

The restrictions also help neighboring communities -- Fort Lee being the most prominent.

"This isn't just about Leonia," Rowe said. "If somebody in Cliffside Park is in cardiac arrest and trying to get one of the area hospitals, the ambulance needs to be able to get through."

In addition to the borough's posting "Do Not Enter" signs, Rowe worked with navigation companies to plug the restrictions into their apps. WAZE, for one, endorsed the Leonia plan.

Police were posted at major cut-throughs during both rush hours Monday and on Tuesday morning, looking for cars without special yellow hang-tags that have been issued to borough residents and merchants.

Those with the tags were waved through.

Those without them were stopped and turned around -- except in the case of residents who hadn't gotten their tags yet. Officers directed them how to go about doing so.

All told, hundreds of warnings were issued, mostly to out-of-towners trying to cut through the borough -- which, unlike any other North Jersey town, has three exits off GWB-bound Route 95.

"Everybody was polite. We didn't have one incident of anyone being difficult," said Rowe -- who, with a total of 18 officers in his department, pulled patrol duty along with Capt. Scott Tamagny.

Broad and Grand avenue and Fort Lee Road aren't restricted, the chief noted.

"We have businesses here. People need to access them," he said. "It's just a matter of keeping the vehicles going where they belong."

Rowe originally planned two weeks' worth of warnings before ordering his officers to begin issuing summonses. But he said he could extend that time period if rush hours go as smoothly as Tuesday morning's.

Other towns in the United States have succeeded with such restrictions -- but Leonia's "is the first of this size and scope," Rowe said.

"This isn't a revenue initiative," the chief said. "We're not trying to be a police state.

"We simply came up with a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem," he said. "When you have limited resources, like we do, you have to be creative."

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