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It takes a village… to get flashing lights at Hamline/Pierce Butler

Posted on 11 September 2017 by Calvin

By JAN WILLMS
Flashing lights.

It’s all about the safety of children. The combined efforts of the community, City of St. Paul and Ramsey County have been at work to create safer conditions for children to walk or bike to school, and these efforts have resulted in the installation of a rectangular flashing beacon at the intersection of Hamline and Pierce Butler.

“I have lobbied for four years for the intersection to be evaluated for pedestrian and cyclist safety,” said parent Susan Sochacki. She has students attending Great River School at 1326 Energy Park Dr. “Parents have been reluctant to have their children cross at Pierce Butler because of the high volumes of traffic and high speeds,” Sochacki said.

Sochacki, who lives five houses west of Hamline, said her family uses the intersection to go to Como Zoo and the pool. Although signage has been added to the route in the past few years, the flashing beacon is the result of studies and concerns by all involved. The importance of traffic safety was highlighted by a cyclist-auto crash Apr. 24 of this year.

Image right: Community leaders hold a sign emphasizing pedestrian safety. It took many years of lobbying to get a flashing beacon at the high-risk intersection of Hamline Ave. and Pierce Butler Rte. (Photo submitted)

Sochacki submitted a chronology of safety measures that have been taken at the Pierce Butler and Hamline route dating back to the fall of 2013 when some Great River students received a grant from Blue Cross-Blue Shield to work on the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) plan.

The mission of SRTS is to advance safe walking and bicycling to and from schools, to improve the health and well being of kids of all races, income levels, abilities, and to foster the creation of healthy communities for everyone. Recommendations were finalized in the fall of 2014. In December of 2014 speed zone signs were installed on Pierce Butler near Hamline and Pierce Butler.

In November of the following year, a crosswalk enforcement event was held at the intersection of Pierce Butler and Hamline Ave. Over the next year and a half, emails were sent, meetings were held, and discussions continued. Sochacki completed pedestrian and cycle counts at the intersection in March, April and May 2017. Stop For Me held an event encouraging vehicle drivers to pay attention to pedestrians in the crosswalk.

And with all these entities working together, it was determined that flashing lights at the intersection of Pierce Butler and Hamline were needed.

“Saint Paul Public Works is installing enhanced crossing treatments at the intersection of Hamline and Pierce Butler as part of an effort to improve the crossing of Pierce Butler for school children, pedestrians, and cyclists,” said Ben Hawkins, an engineer with that department. “This crossing is an important route for children going to the two schools that are in the Energy Park area because it is the only way across the railroad between Snelling and Lexington. It is also an identified route in the Safe Routes to School program as well as the Saint Paul bike plan.”

“Pierce Butler is one of the higher speed roadways in St. Paul and was previously part of a project to improve the pedestrian crossing several years ago,” Hawkins continued. ‘The previous project installed a center lane concrete median refuge to reduce the crossing distance. The current project will install a rectangular rapid flashing beacon (RRFB) device at the crossing as well as two times a day activate school speed limit zone flashing signs.”

Hawkins described the RRFB as a push button activated system that will flash LED lights to help alert drivers of pedestrians crossing Pierce Butler, and the school speed limit zone flashing signs will flash during the times of day when the reduced speed for children going to and from school is active. Hawkins noted that there are RRFB devices currently installed at Raymond and Gordon as well as just south of Grand Ave. on Snelling and at the intersection of Johnson Pkwy. and Ames.

“The project to install these devices is being paid for by Ramsey County Public Works and St. Paul Public Works,” Hawkins said. “Work has begun at this time, but we are still awaiting delivery of the actual crossing device hardware. The manufacturer we ordered the hardware from has received a large number of orders this year and is a bit behind on delivery, but we will complete the installation as soon as the remainder of the hardware arrives. I anticipate project completion within the next three weeks or so, which is now the expected delivery date.”

Jeremy Ellison, Toward Zero Death Grant Coordinator of the St. Paul Police Department (SPPD), emphasized that pedestrian safety is a priority for the city and the police department. ‘We are committed to making sure our community is safe for everyone to walk, bike, roll, and drive,” he stated.

He cited recent statistics showing that as of July 15, 2017, there have been 106 pedestrians and an additional 50 bikers who have been struck by drivers in St. Paul. “This is an increase from 2016 numbers,” Ellison confirmed. “There is a national trend showing an increase in pedestrian crashes.”

He said the SPPD has been partnering with the community, schools, nonprofits and anyone else who is passionate about pedestrian safety. “Together, we have done over 100 pedestrian safety events this year,” he said. “The goal is to raise awareness and teach pedestrians how to safely cross the road, as well as doing enforcement for drivers who fail to stop for pedestrians who are crossing the street in a crosswalk. We take great care to make sure that drivers have plenty of time to safely slow down and stop for pedestrians who are in the crosswalk, making a safe stopping distance using an orange cone so that pedestrians and police know when a vehicle has had enough time to stop.”

Ellison said he is excited about the work that has happened at Hamline and Pierce Butler. “I know that changes in the signage and the addition of an RRFB are all going to teach the kids how to safely cross the road, which will extend far beyond just this one intersection,” he said.

“Projects like this are great stories to tell when we need to find the secret recipe for success,” he said. “There was a lot of work done by the community to show the need. The County also did a great job of partnering and listening to the concerns and then making meaningful change to prioritize the most vulnerable road users.” Ellison added that he is hopeful that this type of action can continue to happen throughout the City as all work together to improve the safety equitably for everyone.

Regarding bikers using Pierce Butler and Hamline Ave., Luke Hanson, who works for the City Public Works Transportation Planning and Safety Division, said recent projects near that intersection include bike lanes installed on Hamline between University and Minnehaha in 2016. “Another project is a biking and walking connection between Pierce Butler and the Lexington Pkwy. Bike/Pedestrian Bridge,” he said. “This year, Ramsey County is also planning on installing bike lanes on Pierce Butler Rte.”

County Commissioner Janice Rettman said that with this project, it has been good to see democracy in action. “Everyone came to the table,” she noted. She said that Great River School has increased exponentially in population, and the speed limit and types of traffic on Pierce Butler had to be enforced to make things safer.

“It is incumbent on the person crossing the street to push a button,” she said. “And the school is making teaching this to kids a part of the curriculum.”

She also emphasized the cost-sharing between the county and city for the project.

“We also need to be respectful of drivers wanting to get to work,” she said. ”All of us have to modify a twitch for it to work best for everybody. Everyone has something to give here—everyone has had a part to play.”

That was reiterated by Sochacki, who is finally seeing her years of concern about the traffic conditions and safety of children using the Pierce Butler Rte. bear fruit. She is hoping the flashing beacons will be installed by Oct. 4, National Walk to School Day. She is working with other schools to commemorate that event, celebrating the health and environment of the schools by promoting walking. And, she is celebrating how a community, working together, can make a difference.

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