Mar 30, 2010

Pedestrian plan precarious

by Melinda Zosh

Wards Road is a cause of controversy in the upcoming city council election. Approximately 30,000 vehicles travel the road every day, according to Director of Auxiliary Services Lee Beaumont and a recent traffic study.

Add to that congestion and the 50 or more students who walk across the busy four-lane road without sidewalks or crosswalks and there is potential for disaster.

Norm Walton, an engineer at Perkins-Orrison, has worked with this area and said that any pedestrian crossing four lanes of traffic without walkways and lights is in a dangerous position, he said.

“Even if there’s just a dozen (students crossing), that’s a lot of traffic to contend with,” Walton said.

Some city council candidates are focused on putting money into the D Street Bridge near Cabell Street downtown rather than putting revenue into improving Wards Road.

“Wards Road is not prioritized over the D Street Bridge,” Councilman Randy Nelson, who is seeking re-election in May, said at Lynchburg first meeting March 12. “The D Street Bridge has priority over Wards Road.”

The Wards Road safety issue has been ignored for years, according to Beaumont.

“Students crossing Wards Road is nothing new and everyone knows it has been an issue for quite a while, but for whatever reason the issue has been ignored,” Beaumont said.

“We were meeting with the Technical Review Committee about 18 months ago and a city official said that Liberty hated pedestrians and sidewalks,” Beaumont said. “We responded and asked that official to walk around our campus and then try Wards Road, but start on campus because he would not make it down Wards Road in one piece. I believe our response hit home.”

The D Street Bridge is less busy with only 2,000 vehicle trips per day, according to city traffic engineer Gerry Harter. These numbers are “based on a turning movement traffic count they did at the intersection of Rivermont and D Streets,” according to LU engineer Maggie Cossman. The movement was conducted during peak traffic hours, she said.

“The city assumed the afternoon peak number of trips was 10 to 12 percent of the total daily trips, which is a standard assumption, and determined the total number of trips (per day),” Cossman said.

For Wards Road, 2,880 vehicles were counted during a peak hour and 200 were counted on D Street Bridge, according to a traffic study conducted by LU as part of the CUP mandates.

Downtown Lynchburg and the D Street Bridge have taken priority over Wards Road, according to Beaumont and Liberty General Counsel William McRorie.

“For some reason Councilman Nelson thinks if you do anything for Ward III it is special treatment, and that mentality baffles me,” Beaumont said.

Wards Road should be a priority for the city, according to McRorie.

“Everything has to be prioritized,” McRorie said. “Hopefully safety is at the top of the list.”

Liberty students often dash across various sections of Wards Road, because there are currently no pedestrian walkway areas. The city council set aside $1 million for a Wards Road pedestrian plan in September 2009, and it appropriated another $775,000 for the project, but that is awaiting final council approval, according to Beaumont.

Some of this money is coming from grants, according to city planner Tom Martin. Currently, the city is waiting for approval of funding to pay for design work, which should be finalized in one to two months with the grants being approved by late April, Martin said.

Liberty University has proposed a tunnel project, which would go under the railroad tracks located in the woods behind the Vines Center, according to Beaumont. Liberty is working with the Norfolk Southern engineering firm TSG to review the construction documents and make a recommendation for approval to the railroad company. Norfolk and Southern has ultimate authority over the final approval of the project, according to Beaumont.
Beaumont expects the tunnel will be approved in the next few weeks and if things go as planned he hopes to start construction on the pedestrian tunnel by this summer, but it does not make sense to build a tunnel with no crosswalks, he said.

“There are all these kids on Wards Road and (the city) has done very little for safety,” Beaumont said. “Once we get them through that tunnel, it is the city’s issue, because they are off Liberty’s property.”

A student was hit by a vehicle last year on Wards Road, Beaumont said.

“It is sad it took thousands of students voting to get the city moving on protecting its busiest road and shopping area,” Beaumont said.

It is dangerous for students to cross the railroad tracks near Sonic, and it is a good idea to build a pedestrian tunnel, according to Walton.

“We need to start with the tunnel, because it reduces students crossing,” Walton said. “We need to get them off the railway and have a safe passage for those students.”

The city is working on a three-phase pedestrian plan, which would place walkways across from Sam’s Club with a “refuge area” in the median where students can press another button to cross the remaining two lanes of traffic, according to Martin. This would not stop or interfere with traffic, he said.

The last phase would include a multi-use trail near McDonald’s for pedestrians and bicyclists, Martin said. The city hopes to begin building the pedestrian features by the end of the year, according to Martin.

“People are trying to cross (Wards Road), and it is not a safe place for pedestrians,” Martin said. “There is no way to stop traffic, and people are crossing wherever they want to.”

It was a consensus to try to build the tunnel and the walkway at the same time, according to Beaumont. He added that students could start using pedestrian features before the tunnel is complete.

“We need to coordinate with the city and have the first phase of the pedestrian features done so students can get from Liberty to the other side of Wards Road,” Beaumont said.

Liberty University spent $100,000 to conduct a traffic study, according to Beaumont, and the city benefited from this study.
“It is not Liberty’s job to take the busiest area in the city and fix it,” Beaumont said. “We are not designed to fix traffic.”

But city officials and residents often blame Wards Road traffic on Liberty University students, he said.

Liberty students make up 65 percent of total city ridership on mass transit, and the school spends $1.7 million on mass transit for a 400-acre campus, which is more than what the city pays for 40 square miles of land, according to Beaumont.

“Blaming Liberty as the major contributor to traffic congestion is simply an inflammatory statement designed to polarize the city,” Beaumont said. “Sure Liberty creates traffic, but we are also leading the way in mass transit, carpooling, and we have a park and ride option with River Ridge Mall. I am not aware of another entity including the city doing more than us to help mitigate traffic problems.”

McRorie wonders why people blame traffic problems on Liberty students.

“We pay tremendous amount of taxes,” McRorie said. “You hear Liberty creates problems and congestion, but you don’t hear the same things said about Randolph College and Lynchburg College.”

Liberty students have improved economic conditions for businesses on Wards Road, according to Beaumont.

“Go ask any business owner what happens to sales when Liberty is out of session,” Beaumont said.

He suggested that students research city council candidates’ stances on issues important to Liberty in the upcoming election.
“Look at where candidates stand on a variety of things,” Beaumont said. “They are spending infrastructure money and are too focused on downtown compared to Ward III.”

Wards Road brings in more revenue than downtown, Beaumont said.

“I keep hearing about how downtown creates all this revenue but then you look closer and see the city has to incentivize businesses such as Bluffwalk and the Craddock-Terry Hotel,” Beaumont said. “You do not have to incentivize people to move their business to Wards Road.”

The only reason the city is paying attention to students’ concerns is because they vote in local elections, according to Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr.

“The city finally seems to be acknowledging that Wards Road and Liberty exist and are part of the city but that is only because Liberty students are registering and voting,” Falwell said. “If Liberty students become apathetic, the city will quickly begin ignoring us again.”

Contact Melinda Zosh at
mzosh@liberty.edu.
 


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