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Alleged hit-and-run driver charged after accident at dangerous intersection

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Jose Arango was sitting in the Coach House Diner on Sunday, planning local political strategies with a group of Republicans, when he heard a commotion in the street.

Arango, the county chairman for the Hudson County Republicans, was shocked. Two well-known Jersey City activists and Republican politicos, Russell Maffei, 57, and Marie Tauro, 80, had been struck by an alleged hit-and-run driver while crossing the street.

Tauro had planned to seek the Republican nomination for a state Assembly seat in the 31st Legislative District, a bold move in heavily Democratic Hudson County. Maffei was working for Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno’s campaign for governor. Both were also known for being involved in other activities locally.

The North Bergen Police Department reported that at about 8:05 p.m., the department received a report of a pedestrian struck near the intersection of Paterson Plank Road and Kennedy Boulevard in North Bergen. Upon arrival, North Bergen Police Officers found a male and a female victim. EMTs transported the two to Jersey City Medical Center, where there were pronounced dead around 10:40 p.m.

Kennedy Boulevard — a one-time stagecoach route (hence the name of the diner) — stretches through the county all the way to Bayonne, and has been the site of numerous pedestrian deaths. Last year, county officials planned a strategy to make the route safer, but it was not enough to prevent the accident.

After a manhunt for the driver, the vehicle suspected in the crash was located in North Bergen, according to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office.

The owner of the vehicle, Michael J. Hansen, age 38, of North Bergen was arrested by members of the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office and North Bergen Police Department shortly before 4 a.m. after the execution of a search warrant at a residence on 54th Street in North Bergen. Hansen, a Hudson County corrections officer, was at that location with family members.

_____________
“There is not a phony bone in her body. You knew exactly where you stood with her.” – Bill O’Dea
____________Officials charged Hansen with two counts of Leaving the Scene of an Accident that Resulted in Death—a second degree crime—and Resisting Arrest.

The incident affected many lives. Tauro was a key figure in Jersey City, one of the first people to step up as a volunteer to help when Mayor Steve Fulop first ran for office.

“She was a Republican, but nobody ever held that against her,” Fulop said, trying to sound chipper when clearly the news of the deaths struck him hard.

Tauro had done a lot for Jersey City, especially Jersey City’s senior citizens, and the fact not lost on the man who has since become mayor.

Arango said Tauro and Maffei were carrying nominating petitions to the meeting in the Coach House when they were struck.

A dangerous situation

The intersection of three streets is dangerous enough in daylight, but even worse at night.

Paterson Plank Road crosses Kennedy Boulevard on an angle, and both streets are intersected by Eighth Street. The complicated traffic light system works to delay traffic to allow cars to turn from Kennedy Boulevard onto Paterson Plank Road. Pedestrians seeking to cross Kennedy have to navigate through a series of crosswalks, often putting themselves in harm’s way. Cars attempt to rush through changing lights to avoid the long delay.

It’s safer for pedestrians to walk up Kennedy Boulevard two blocks before crossing the street, but many people take their chances by crossing in the middle of each of these streets.

“People don’t look when they’re turning near the corners. I’m not scared to drive, but I’m more afraid to walk,” said one 46-year resident outside the diner last week. She noted that there are no pedestrian crosswalks across Paterson Plank Road when it intersects with Ninth Street.

“Down by 14th Street and 15th and Paterson Plank Road, they’re building apartments or condos, and they’re going to have stores there, and I’m just wondering if they’re going to put crosswalks and more traffic lights,” she said.

Nicole Falcon, a resident of Union City, said she was concerned. “Quite a few people killed already by the Coach Diner,” she said. “We need more manpower out there for those drunks and people under the influence of drugs driving “Jersey City Councilman Richard Boggiano agreed.

“Another tragic incident. There is something wrong in our society where we are continuously seeing incidents like this,” he said.

Trying to make it safer

Earlier this year, Freeholder Chairman Anthony Vainieri implemented a new safety program for the entire length of Kennedy Boulevard. This includes new traffic light sequencing that will stop traffic at intervals, forcing traffic to slow down.

“If you stop at a red light, it’ll take time for a car to speed up, by which time it will have to stop for another light a few blocks up,” he said. “We can’t force people to stop speeding but we can keep them from getting up to speed.”

Using state grant money, the county has begun repainting crossing lines and setting up buffers along critical areas such as near schools.

In Jersey City, Freeholder Bill O’Dea said he is working with Safe Streets JC in order to make high risk sections of Kennedy Boulevard safer in Jersey City. “The focus is on enforcement,” he said. Improvements are being funded through a $3.6 million grant.

“We’ve already changed the traffic light patterns at night to curtail speeding,” he said.

But he said in some cases, such accidents caused by a drunken driver, there is little that can be done to prevent them.

Locals are stunned

Governor Chris Christie issued a statement on the tragedy.

“Mary Pat and I were deeply saddened and disturbed to learn of the tragic deaths of Russell Maffei and Marie Tauro. More than just a long-time Republican colleague, Russ was a dear friend who I had known for many years and who I could always rely upon.”

Freeholder Junior Maldonado called the deaths “devastating news.”

New Jersey GOP Chairman Sam Raia said, “Russ was a dedicated and loyal member of the NJGOP for many years. The Hudson County Republican Organization will not be the same without them.”

On her Facebook page, Guadagno said, “Our entire team is heartbroken by the tragic loss of a longtime friend and one of our earliest supporters, Russell Maffei,”

“Russell Maffei was like a brother to me and a good friend, and he was respected throughout the county,” Arango said. “Marie was supposed to become our candidate in the 31st District. This is a huge loss for us politically and personally. These are people who worked hard and did good things in the community.

Tauro, a former vice president of the Jersey City Tea Party and a commissioner on the Jersey City Municipal Utility Authority, was well known for her work with the seniors.

“Marie is founder of a program for seniors at NJCU,” Fulop said. “This started small and she managed to help it reach many seniors throughout the city.”

Although she was a staunch critic against unnecessary government spending, she was known for being extremely generous with her time.

Maffei and Tauro both lived in College Towers, near NJCU. Tauro was an avid walker and sometimes logged as many as five miles a day.

“I ran into her a lot on West Side Avenue,” said photographer Richard McCormick. “She would hug me and then ask me what’s going on. She was a big walker. She also liked to swim and used the pool at Pershing Field and at NJCU.”

An early supporter of Fulop, she apparently hoped to eventually become chair of the MUA, but never got the opportunity.

“She was a volunteer for a lot of things,” McCormack said. “She used to address the birthday cards Steve Fulop sent out to residents.”

She organized Easter egg hunts, toy giveaways and other events around various holidays.

“She labeled all my birthday cards,” O’Dea said. “That’s 36,000.”

O’Dea said he will remember two things most about her.

“First, there is not a phony bone in her body. You knew exactly where you stood with her, if she was happy with you or angry,” he said. “I wish everybody was like that.” And she wasn’t shy.

“She would tell me she had a problem, or that she took care of something,” O’Dea said, also recalling her fascination with the rising stock market. “She would report on each new milestone, every time it set a new record.”

Most of all, however, O’Dea said, “She was a tireless worker.”

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