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Springfield Main Street dangerous to pedestrians.

Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

A new law requiring drivers to give walkers a wider berth has exposed a dangerous pedestrian no-man's land in east Springfield.

The six-mile stretch of Main Street east of downtown is a wide-open, five-lane road. Traffic generally zips along 8 mph over the speed limit in the 40 or 45 mph speed zones.

More than 25,000 cars per day in some stretches of the seven-mile street ferry drivers on Main Street between Franklin Boulevard and the McKenzie Highway.

And if any driver were to obey the law and actually stop for a pedestrian attempting to cross at an unmarked intersection, the result would be disastrous, Springfield police officer Brian Gay said.

"You're going to have a diesel truck coming right up your rear end," he said. "I've got a quandary about that."

Government officials, traffic engineers, police - and the pedestrians, including many low-income residents of the area - all recognize this car vs. pedestrian conflict in east Springfield.

The numbers are telling: With one, two or four pedestrian fatalities each year, Springfield has a pedestrian death rate roughly equal to Eugene, while Eugene has three times the population. Many of the dead drew their last breath on Main Street.

"Main Street is our killer street," Gay said.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is responsible for Main Street because it's a state highway. Dean Fuller, assistant manager for the Lane County ODOT region, said engineers are well aware of the fatalities.

"There is a lot of foot traffic out there. They're taking any break they can find and crossing accordingly," he said.

Laura Cook visits her storage unit, does her banking and gets her coffee - all around the 5000 block of Main Street. "Drivers are under the impression they're on a freeway and shouldn't have to stop," she said. "Cars have really taken over everything and they don't regard a pedestrian."

Too overwhelming

Despite the danger on Main Street, Springfield police have resisted applying for a state grant that would have bought officer overtime for pedestrian law enforcementred lights for its Main Street station.

Springfield police may enforce the pedestrian law on Centennial Boulevard, where high school students cross, or on Mohawk Boulevard in the shopping district, but drivers won't see much change in the police "attitude and demeanor" with regard to Main Street, Gay said.

Two other Oregon police agencies have made a similar decision about pedestrian law enforcement. After trying the state-sponsored traffic stings, Keizer and Woodburn decided to stop. "They were getting so much flak they didn't want to do it anymore," said Rick Waring, the state bicyclist and pedestrian safety program manager.

"It depends on the political courage of the local government. When you give people citations, they're going to yell about it," he said.

On the flip side, when cities enforce, "People come out of the woodwork to thank the police for doing it," Waring said.

Communities with state highways running through them have been successful at getting ODOT to install pedestrian safety features, said Michael Ronkin, the agency's bicycle and pedestrian program manager.

In response to requests from a neighborhood or senior citizens group, the state has arrived with bulb-out curbs, median islands and improved illumination.

A new strategy is to move the vehicle stop line back 30 feet, so pedestrians can see around vans and trucks. "That dramatically opens up sight distance," Ronkin said.

But those projects require a traffic engineer to analyze the car and pedestrian patterns - and to weigh the safety measures against the need to keep the highway moving steadily.

The traffic has got to flow, Waring said. "On the other hand there's a whole other group of people - walkers - who need to be able to use the transportation system, too."

Project planned for 2005

East Springfield walkers may get some relief from a state reconstruction project scheduled for 2005.

Planners foresee making the lanes on that part of the road narrower and adding bicycle lanes. Drivers generally respond to narrow lanes by slowing down, Dean Fuller, the district transportation manager, said. "We may be able to get traffic to go 40 mph," he said.

Engineers foresee installing up to 10 median islands on Main Street, between 20th and 73rd streets. The purpose is to stop head-on collisions that occur as drivers, traveling in opposite directions, pull into the center turn lane at the same time, Fuller said.

A side effect is pedestrians will be able to pause on the median while crossing the street. "We're trying to give them refuge without creating more crosswalks per se," Fuller said.

A fix for the road for pedestrians is difficult for two reasons: Engineers have a hard time discerning what block pedestrians are most likely to use, and businesses dislike center islands that stop drivers from making a left turn into their driveways, state officials said.

Strip development - a long string of small businesses along a major road - is a challenge for engineers. Pedestrians tend to dribble across the street at mid block, such as at places where a high school is across from a convenience store or a housing development is across from a park, rather than flow across at particular intersections.

"You have to have a concentration of activities of one type or another to justify a traffic engineering decision," Ronkin said.

But Cook, who travels Main Street on foot, said there's no mystery about where crosswalks on Main Street are needed. "They need a crosswalk at 50th real bad; they need one at 41st real bad. Several people have been hit - older people," she said.

Local government officials have to settle the tensions between business access and pedestrian safety, Ronkin said. On a road that heavily traveled, pedestrians are going to need 40- or 50-foot-long islands for a sense of bulk and protection.

"Businesses love that open five lane," he said. "We would prefer to have some raised medians in there like we do on Highway 99 north of Eugene," he said.

"But the business community always tries to oppose it, because they think access is going to be restricted. In some cases its true, and in some cases it's just a perception," he said. "That's a continuous tension."

DRIVERS BEWARE

Drivers must give pedestrians a wider berth under a new law that takes effect Jan. 1. The fine for violating the law - set by cities - is $135 in Eugene and $237 in Springfield.

Give them a lane: Drivers must stop and remained stopped when pedestrians are in an adjacent lane. That means traffic going both directions on a two-lane street must stop when a pedestrian is in an intersection. On a five-lane street, a driver in the far right lane must wait until a pedestrian crossing from the right enters the center turn lane before proceeding.

Source: The Oregon Legislature adopted the law during its 2003 session. Only three lawmakers in the 90-member body opposed the bill, and those on grounds that it would impede the flow of traffic.

Springfield police officer Brian Gay: "Now it's clear-cut. You shall stop when you're in the next lane. That's it, period. There's no gray area."

WALK TALK ON THE WEB

America Walks: National pedestrian rights coalition, www.americawalks.org

Perils for Pedestrians: www.pedestrians.org

New pedestrian law: www.leg.state.or.us/03orlaws/0278.pdf

CAR vs. PEDESTRIAN

Here's the numbers of dead and injured for the five years leading up to 2002, which are the most recent figures available from the state Department of Transportation.

Deaths:

Place 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002

Springfield 0 1 1 2 4

Eugene 2 1 3 4 3

Lane County 5 4 8 9 8

State 67 47 51 60 48

Injuries:

Place 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002

Springfield 12 11 14 17 10

Eugene 31 25 28 21 33

Lane County 53 44 54 44 49

State 649 642 599 577 595

CAPTION(S):

A pedestrian makes his way through four lanes of traffic and a turning lane on Main Street in Springfield.
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Title Annotation:Transportation; A new state law will be hazardous to enforce along a stretch of the roadway
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 27, 2003
Words:1336
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