If you want to get something done, ask the Girl Scouts. After years of government inertia, the Girls Scouts of Troop 4140 in Sitka have spearheaded the installation of flashing crosswalk signs along some of the busiest state road in town. KCAW’s Robert Woolsey reports.
How long has the crosswalk at the intersection of Halibut Point Road and Peterson St. been studied for safety improvements? I don’t know. But I do know that this segment of road, at the base of two hills, with its blinds spots and driveways, is nicknamed “Death Valley.” And I spent a lunch hour there 8 years ago with a state traffic safety engineer by the name of Carolyn Morehead, and here’s what she observed one Wednesday in March of 2008:
“The good thing about the road is that it’s relatively low speed. There are gaps for pedestrians. It’s not constant cars. There is an ability to find a gap to cross the street.”
Fast forward 8 years to a Tuesday afternoon in June of 2016. Girl Scouts are here on the corner with members of the Sitka Rotary Club, the local Police and Fire Commission, and five businesses on either side of the street, collecting checks totalling over $9,000 for the installation of flashing crosswalk markers.
KCAW – Hi. What’s your name?
Peterson – Margaret Peterson.
KCAW – And how old are you?
Peterson – 14 years old.
KCAW – And why are you interested in this intersection?
Peterson – Because at night it’s dangerous, and kids could get hit because they don’t wear bright clothes. And it just would make our community safer.
With the help of Sitka’s Police and Fire Commission, and state Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, Peterson and her troop have secured permission to install four RRFP – Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons, at a cost of $3,000 each. They look like regular crosswalk signs, with a difference: pedestrians can push a button that activates a pair of bright yellow strobes to alert drivers. Sitka has already installed a set of these just up the hill on Edgecumbe Drive, across from Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School. But that’s a city street. Halibut Point Road is state highway; installing RRFB here involved cracking the government bureaucracy.
Retha Winger is 4140’s troop leader.
“We compiled a survey and sent it to Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins’ office. And they submitted it with a letter our troop wrote to the people at the state who were involved in the decision-making. And we actually got a letter back from them saying it was done…”
The Girl Scouts surveyed 127 people on the question “Does the HPR-Peterson St. Intersection Need to be Improved?” All but four of them said yes, and many left detailed stories of near-misses, and of one fatality.
For Sharon Bergman, one of the Rotarians on the sidewalk today, the data is very personal. Her son, Cody, was struck here on a winter evening in 2014 while riding his bike home from his newspaper route. She thinks better markers in this crosswalk may have spared Cody a month in the hospital, and a long recovery.
“You know, it’s hard because he doesn’t remember a lot of that day. But he’d been biking since he was really small. And he says, I know I looked. And I think if there had been something that had lit up the way, everyone would have seen him. I would hope this would keep anyone else from being hit.”
Ironically, compared to many other places — even in Alaska — this intersection is relatively safe. When I interviewed Carolyn Morehead, the traffic engineer, this intersection didn’t even rank in the top 50 most dangerous intersections in Southeast. The four-way stop at Swan Lake — which has since been replaced with a roundabout — and the corner of Lake and Lincoln Streets — which now has a stoplight — were both ranked far higher.
But it doesn’t change the fact that this intersection seems scary. It feels like you’re taking a risk, hoping traffic stops as it comes barreling over the slight rise just past Prewitt’s Funeral Home.
Betsy Decker is a chiropractor who, along with Prewitt’s and McDonald’s restaurant, contributed money to the Girl Scouts.
“My patients use this crosswalk all the time to get over to my office. In fact I use this crosswalk every single day to get to my practice. And especially in the winter you’re not visible in the crosswalk to cars coming on, and they just don’t know to slow down or stop. It’s a dangerous intersection. So I’m really excited that there’s something going on.”
So why didn’t the state improve the crosswalk at Peterson Street eight years ago? The study was requested by the school district, since the crosswalk links the high school with McDonald’s. At a school board meeting in 2008, safety engineer Morehead explained the hazard in doing something that appears to improve to safety, but may not really improve anything.
“Sometimes when you mark a crosswalk, the pedestrian feels like, I have the right-of-way, and walks out. Whereas if you don’t have one marked, the pedestrian is more careful. I would look at that and see how many pedestrians do cross there.”
And that’s exactly what she did. During the lunch hour in 2008 when I sat with Morehead, 31 people crossed Halibut Point Road between Peterson and Brady streets. But only 12 used the crosswalk. That says a lot about the relative risk people feel about using the crosswalk versus just going for it. But, thanks to Girl Scout Troop 4140, there’s even more of an incentive to use the crosswalk and get across the street unharmed.
The Girl Scouts hope to have the flashing crosswalk signs installed at McDonald’s before school starts this fall. So far, they’ve raised $9,200 in donations from the Sitka Rotary Club, Sitka CHARR, Sitka Community Hospital, Oceanside Physical Therapy, McDonald’s, Prewitt’s, Betsy Decker’s Chiropractic Clinic. They’ll sell hot dogs and wash cars this Saturday, June 18, from 10 AM – 2 PM at the Sitka Firehall. Read the letter the troop wrote in support of the crosswalk beacons here. Read comments from their survey here. Read a letter of support from Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins here.