Tom Joyce Staff Reporter
August 17, 2013
One might forgive Jonathan Guy, a transportation consultant, for feeling somewhat trampled-upon after comments during a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners regarding a pedestrian study his firm prepared.
While commissioners and citizens alike expressed concerns Thursday night about Kimley-Horn and Associates’ study on long-range infrastructure improvements to make the city more walkable, the severe tone of some critics elicited an apology from one board member.
“I was very disappointed in your comments to Mr. Guy,” Commissioner Jon Cawley said after citizens Paul Eich and John Pritchard attacked the plan — both its recommendations and alleged “sloppy work,” such as inaccurate listings of street names.
“He was a welcome guest here tonight,” Cawley added of the project consultant, who came from out of town to attend Thursday night’s meeting.
Eich, for one, had suggested that the $31,500 spent on the study — largely from a grant from the N.C. Department of Transportation — was a waste of taxpayers’ money.
He and Pritchard spoke during a scheduled public hearing on the plan, which became a source of controversy in itself.
A letter to the editor from Pritchard which had been published in The Mount Airy News earlier in the week said the hearing should have been held at a later date to allow citizens more time to digest the study. It had been released to the public, and commissioners, just three days before the hearing.
The board did decide Thursday to keep the hearing open until its next meeting on Sept. 5.
“For 32k, he can make another trip up here,” Pritchard said during his comments.
This reflected the opposition coming during Round One Thursday night, when Guy also gave a presentation on the study’s findings for the first time.
Both Eich and Pritchard, and board members, questioned aspects of the plan designed to encourage and safeguard pedestrian travel, largely through crosswalk and other improvements at major intersections.
It contains recommendations for U.S. 52 at U.S. 601 in particular, which Guy called the “poster child of (bad) intersections” for pedestrians.
The study also targets other problem sites such as the U.S. 52-Carter/Newsome Street intersection; Renfro and Pine streets at Reeves Community Center (where improvements already are in the works); North Main Street at First Baptist Church, site of a fatality in the past; East Pine Street at Riverside Drive; West Pine Street at the Emily B. Taylor Greenway; and West Lebanon Street at Grace Street.
Often pedestrians risk their lives trying to cross local streets, according to Guy, who said four people were killed in Mount Airy in 34 pedestrian-related crashes over the past 12 years.
“I saw my fair share of people trying to cross the street at different locations,” the consultant said of observations reflected in the study. “And they were sprinting.”
Measures such as installing high-visibility crosswalks; more sidewalks, including areas with none presently; pedestrian signals; shared paths for walkers and cyclists; and pedestrian refuge islands are among the plan’s recommendations for key intersections.
Based on costs for individual components, the expense would total around $20 million just for the 30 miles of new sidewalks and 13.3 miles of shared paths suggested. The estimated costs of each are $740,000 per mile, for just construction, but both Eich and Pritchard believe work could be done by city sidewalk crews for much less.
U.S. 52 Plan Attacked
Board and citizen comments greeted the recommendations for making it easier to cross U.S. 52, which the plan says is a barrier separating the eastern and western portions of the city.
Guy referred to a “captive” group of people who stay in hotels along U.S. 601, and might trek to the downtown area if the crossing were safer. “People are out there walking…looking for safe connections,” he said.
But Cawley questioned the premise behind the recommendations for improvements at the busy U.S. 52/U.S. 601 intersection. “There are some places in town you just don’t walk,” he said.
Pritchard also referred to that in his public-hearing comments. “People know not to walk there, just like they do on interstates.”
Eich mentioned that it doesn’t make sense to force people to use crossings, especially downtown, when they are prone to simply cross the street where it’s easiest. “It is stupid,” he said of crosswalks at such locations, because pedestrians will not go out of their way to access one.
Pritchard also objected to changes that would allow pedestrians to push a button and make traffic stop in all directions, and eliminating right turns on red to safeguard those on foot. “It doesn’t seem to be too friendly to vehicles,” he said of the plan.
Commissioner Shirley Brinkley complained that survey responses by 519 city residents on pedestrian needs, which helped formulate the plan, do not represent a majority of citizens. Residents received questionnaires with their water bills during the study process.
Brinkley also asked Guy how many of the pedestrian-related crashes he cited were actually at the intersections.
“We have that information, but I just don’t have it tonight,” the consultant replied.
Eich also made much of the mistakes he said the 66-page study contains, including typos and wrong listings for street names. In one instance, Renfro Street is noted as linked to U.S. 52, which is not the case. Also, the Downtown Cinema Theatre is referred to even though it was renamed the Earle Theatre last year, Eich said.
Another part of the plan citing crash data mentions Cornelius, a community near Charlotte, rather than Mount Airy, Eich said. The study by the consulting firm — which he called “typical of our government nowadays” — apparently was rushed into print “just to get it in your hands,” Eich told the commissioners.
“I just have great concerns about this plan,” he added. “We don’t need this — please don’t vote for it.”
Andy Goodall, a city planner who helped proofread the study, took partial responsibility. “I apologize,” Goodall said, adding that the plan had been read multiple times in an effort to achieve accuracy.
But Commissioner Cawley called Eich’s criticisms “petty.” The study is labeled a draft pedestrian plan at this point.
Mentioning her own experience with book publishing, Brinkley agreed that “it’s almost impossible to get it perfect.”
Meeting Time Altered
In agreeing to continue the public hearing to the board’s next meeting on Sept. 5, there also was debate about switching its scheduled time to 7 p.m. from 2 p.m.
Pritchard had lobbied for that to allow more citizens to attend.
“My opinion is that someone who wants to be here will find a way to attend,” Commissioner Cawley countered.
The vote to set the meeting time for 7 p.m. was 4-1.
Cawley was the dissenter, explaining that he would not be able to attend at that hour. Cawley also indicated that the fact Pritchard wrote a letter to the editor should not be the impetus for such a change.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.