Burlington City High School worries ‘Antwan’s Law’ to make Route 130 safer might not become a reality
Burlington City High School students and others who worked for two years to get 'Antwan's Law' passed by the New Jersey legislature wonder why Gov. Phil Murphy hasn't signed it yet.
Standing next to a makeshift memorial near the spot where Burlington City High School student Antwan Timbers was struck and killed by a car while walking alongside Route 130 in 2016, his former classmate Jesseca Lamont suddenly welled up.
"The best memorial to Antwan,” she said softly, “would be Antwan’s Law.”
Legislation to permanently lower speed limits to 25 mph on Route 130 through the school zone between Wood Street and Jacksonville Road was approved by the state Assembly and Senate last year and awaits Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature.
The governor has until Jan. 31 to sign, veto, conditionally veto, or take no action on the measure; the fourth option would enable the measure to become law without his signature.
Burlington City Mayor Barry W. Conaway has requested a conditional veto of Antwan’s Law so the city’s concerns about traffic, enforcement, and other issues can be addressed. If Murphy agrees, the measure, with his conditions or concerns attached, would be sent back to the state Senate.
“In no way am I trying to kill the spirit of this bill." Conaway told me. "The intentions are well and good. But I’m concerned about traffic from 130 bleeding into the side streets and the neighborhoods. Residents are concerned about that as well. We don’t want the city to be put in a very difficult situation.”
Murphy’s office declined to comment. But two of the legislation’s sponsors — State Sen. Troy Singleton and Assemblywoman Carol A. Murphy, both Burlington Democrats — did.
“I’m somewhat confused why what seems like a pretty straightforward measure that had overwhelming bipartisan support seems to have languished," said Singleton. “But I still remain hopeful that the governor will sign it,”
Said Murphy, the assemblywoman: “I have a lot of respect for Mayor Conaway. But I think there should have been better communication. The city should not have waited until the last minute.”
The mayor, who also serves as director of public safety, said he regretted not making known sooner the city’s concerns about enforcement and other potential ramifications of the proposed speed-limit reduction. But he said he has no plans to withdraw the Jan. 22 letter he wrote to the governor, requesting a conditional veto.
“It’s in his hands,” Conaway said. "If he signs it as it has been passed, so be it. I would like to see him make a conditional veto and say he is going to address our concerns. The bottom line is public safety."
To my mind, the reckless driving culture of Route 130 — a multilane, mostly shoulder-free highway that invites speeding and sometimes, drag-racing — pretty much necessitates that the speed limit through the half-mile school zone between Wood Street and Jacksonville Road should be cut from 40 to 25 mph. Period.
Antwan’s Law was the fruit of a remarkable two years of rallies, research, petitioning, and lobbying by students, teachers, school administrators, and local residents — a collective sharing of grief and a collaborative lesson in civics, politics, and government. Lamont and other students went to Trenton to meet with legislators and testify on behalf of the measure.
“Antwan was a student in our school district from pre-K through high school. He was a great friend and classmate and student, and his death was devastating to our school community," said James Flynn, principal of Burlington City High. “The extra time drivers will spend going through the school zone at 25 miles an hour is a minute. We’re asking them to spend one minute to save the lives of our students.”
The city of just under 10,000 people has a walking school district, and most of its neighborhoods lie west of Route 130. So large numbers of the high school’s 700 students must cross the highway. And younger students who live on the east side of Route 130 must cross to reach the Wilbur Watts Intermediate School on the west side.
Among them has been Jovon Collins, a Burlington City High senior who grew up with Antwan and described him as “a good person” with an attitude that was always positive.
“This bill is important to me,” said Collins, who participated in rallies and other activities on behalf of Antwan’s Law.
“Antwan’s death was not the only [serious incident] I’ve heard about on that road," he said. "A friend of mine lost her grandfather there. There was another kid, named Eddie, who was hit, but he survived. They need to make that road safer for the rest of us.”
Antwan’s mother, Angela Conner, drives her 15-year-old daughter to Burlington City High in the morning and worries about her having to cross Route 130 in the afternoon.
“We all want” the governor to sign the bill, said Conner. “What the school and the kids have done [since her son was killed] have been great — there have been some changes on 130. There are a lot more police out there, and more people are aware.”
Since 2017, the number of through lanes on Route 130 has been reduced from three to two in each direction as part of a “road diet” instituted by the state Department of Transportation. About 42,000 vehicles travel through Burlington City on Route 130 daily, according to the most recent traffic count.
“Our pedestrian safety [staff] has been working closely with the city,” said Mairin Bellack, the department’s deputy director of communications. “The road diet was rolled out early because DOT did not want to wait to make even a marginal improvement as soon as possible.”
Back at the makeshift memorial, Lamont, 18, pulled dead grass that had grown up around the teddy bears and other trinkets people had placed around the base of a utility pole. She and Antwan both were active in the Junior ROTC program at Burlington City High (“he was one of my cadets”), and she is now an Army National Guard private first class.
"Antwan’s Law is very important to us,” said Lamont, who hopes the governor will sign it. I do, too.