Johnson City officials say pedestrian safety a top priority

Becky Campbell • Apr 29, 2013 at 9:07 AM

Pedestrian safety is a top priority of Johnson City officials, evidenced by a nearly-complete overhaul of a one-block section downtown, but other areas are also under consideration.

“We are trying to make it more pedestrian friendly in as many ways as we can,” said Johnson City Traffic Engineer Anthony Todd.

The current project under way is a total revamp of one block of Buffalo Street where it turns off West State of Franklin Road toward downtown Johnson City. The projects include narrowing the road to only two lanes, adding a raised concrete and decorative paver median and new lighting.

“We’re highlighting crosswalks, improving the walking paths … reducing distances (pedestrians) have to cross,” he said.

But the area some residents are most concerned about is a two-block section of West State of Franklin between Buffalo Street and North Roan Street.

It’s there a Jonesborough woman walking in the crosswalk at Spring Street was hit by a vehicle just before 9 p.m. April 18.

Rachel Witt, 23, was crossing West State of Franklin from the Cherry Street parking lot side toward downtown when a westbound car on State of Franklin hit her.

Johnson City Police Lt. Larry Williams said this type of vehicle/pedestrian collision boils down to attentiveness, particularly on motorists who are required to yield to people in a crosswalk.

“People don’t pay attention,” he said. “There was no excuse not to see (Witt). It’s not a lighting issue, it’s people not paying attention,” he said.

Witt’s collision was one of two in the downtown area so far this year. In 2012, there were a total of 17 vehicle collisions with pedestrians. Two of those occurred in the downtown area. So far this year, there have been 11 such collisions, with two being downtown.

“Rarely do we get the luxury of seeing a video of the crash happening. And that didn’t show a whole lot. All it showed was the girl coming into view of the screen then, boom, she got hit by the car. It just kinda lifted her up in the air and she came back down.

“She’s lucky. By all rights it would not have surprised me if she hadn’t got killed,” Williams said.

The area where it happened is very close to the same place a man was hit and killed in 2007 while crossing State of Franklin. Williams was the lead investigator on that case, which involved a drunken driver killing David Hudson.

And while improvements are ongoing in other parts of the downtown area, State of Franklin apparently presents bigger challenges for the city, according to Todd.

“We have a policy for traffic calming and that’s not the type of roadway for that because that’s the type of road for emergency access,” Todd said.

The city’s policy on traffic calming prohibits raised crossings on emergency access roads and “it just so happens we have that right in the middle of where we’re trying to get pedestrians across,” from the Cherry Street parking lot, Todd said. There is also an issue involving the right of way of the railroad.

Todd said there have been changes in the past — including adding a flashing pedestrian crossing sign at the mid-block crossing and reducing the speed limit to 30 mph — but acknowledged the two-block stretch is “where we’re having the problems.”

He said the city is looking at low-cost options first, but there are other possibilities.

“Additional markings, which may or may not improve the safety … you can look at the overhead crossings, but there are challenges with the grade and getting people to use it,” he said, noting that the new overhead crossing on State of Franklin at East Tennessee State University is often ignored by pedestrians.

“Even when you do the really expensive options, getting people to use what is there is difficult. If it’s not convenient, you can’t get people to use it. We’re looking at some of the lower cost options first,” Todd said.

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