Most of you know I like to take walks. Barring a bone-crushing downpour or a stroll through the Atacama Desert, walking is my preferred method of transportation pretty much everywhere. Especially in Hoquiam.
Moseying down Emerson Avenue the other day, I was surprised to find that the traffic light located at Emerson and Simpson near Central Elementary School has gone the way of the Dodo. It’s been replaced by a “flashing rectangular beacon system for a crosswalk signal that is activated when the crossing is being utilized.”
You know this type of system? It’s the same deal that exists at the crosswalk near the YMCA and McDonald’s. Better known as: Good luck with that, pal.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve stood at the crosswalk near the Y, activated the flashing lights and watched one vehicle after another blow through the crosswalk, oblivious to flashing lights, neon strobes, and the Second Coming.
I can tell you from personal experience that attempting to cross at the Emerson/Simpson intersection is not an endeavor for the faint-hearted. Even on clear, sunny days with good visibility.
So who’s the rocket scientist who came up with replacing a traffic signal light at Simpson and Emerson – a crossing smack dab next to an elementary school – with flashing lights? The answer is: Depends on who you ask.
Well. You know I like to ask questions. I put out some feelers on this one. I was told that the city wasn’t consulted on this stroke of genius. It was a WSDOT decision.
You know I still like to ask questions.
So I made some phone calls. I talked to WSDOT Project Engineer John Romero on July 23. When I asked what the rationale was behind replacing a functional traffic light with flashing lights, he said that it was done for “pedestrian purposes” and that the signal light was “never really used” during school times because the school has flaggers/crossing guards, etc. He also indicated that the signal light was “at the end of its service life” and needed to be replaced. In talking with the school district, said Romero, the DOT determined that it was “best to go with a more economical option (flashing lights) to lessen the maintenance load.”
“Hopefully the public will get used to it,” he said. “Flashers capture drivers’ attention.”
Do they really?
From a 2016 story, 2 kids hit by cars in past 8 days while walking to school in Federal Way district:
The crosswalk where the boy was hit is marked by stripes on the pavement, numerous signs, even flashing lights. The crosswalk is barely 50 yards outside of the school zone.
I also asked if an opportunity for public input regarding the change was provided prior to making the decision. Romero indicated no, but that “the design team worked with the school district” on the switch.
Romero said he’d “pass my concerns” on to the Traffic Office “and that intersection will be watched.”
Regarding the use of flaggers/crossing guards, did it not occur to anyone that pedestrian traffic at that crosswalk is not limited to school hours or week days? Hello?
I also spoke with Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay on July 23. He said the city “was not consulted” regarding the switch, and that the traffic signal was removed by the DOT, who apparently has full and final authority on these matters.
Who has full and final authority on pedestrian safety at public crosswalks? Or children attempting that crossing outside of school morning and afternoon hours when crossing guards aren’t on the scene? (Askin’ for a friend.)
Mr. Shay provided an email from Mr. Jeff Young of the Aberdeen Project Engineer Office. The email is dated July 3, 2018. The subject is “C9155 – Emmerson (sic) Ave. Remove existing signal system.” Referencing a July 2 phone message from Shay, Young writes, “yes, the subject signal system was removed as part of this project.” Young continues:
“It was determined during the design phase that there was no vehicle conflict at the intersection Emmerson (sic), Simpson and 3rd Street that required a traffic signal system. The only reason for the traffic signal system was to control traffic for pedestrian crossing. Additionally, the crossing is managed by school crossing guards during school hours per discussions with the Principal. Based on the above, a design was developed by WSDOT Traffic Office to install a flashing rectangular beacon system for a crosswalk signal that is activated when the crosswalk is being utilized, which allowed the existing signal system which was no longer necessary to be removed. Crossing safety was not compromised as a result of this design and the removal of the existing signal system will result in a significant reduction in signal system maintenance.”
What is this, Amateur Night at the Bijou?
Jeff Young Email to Brian Shay 03 Jul 2018
A Few Questions:
- Who made the determination “that there was no vehicle conflict at the intersection”? When? Based on what?
- Were those making this decision regular pedestrians?
- How many have actually attempted this crossing?
- Do any of them walk anywhere in town on a regular basis?
- It kinda sounds like safe pedestrian crossings aren’t exactly topping the list of DOT traffic concerns. Why is that?
I walk down Emerson Avenue several times a week. When my kids attended Hoquiam High School, I walked that street coming and going pretty much every school day barring bone-crushing downpours. For 10+ years. So I think I have a fair amount of pedestrian experience here. And lemme tell ya, crossing at Emerson and Simpson even with a functional stop light can be a hazardous endeavor. But replacing a STOP! light with flashing lights? right next to an elementary school?
Additionally, I can also tell you from personal experience that not every vehicle stops at a red signal light at the Emerson/Simpson intersection (or at Emerson and Lincoln, near Humdingers. Or at Simpson and 7th, near the old La Vogue’s. Or at that wretched four-way intersection on Emerson and Adams, near Emerson Elementary. Or at the crosswalk on Riverside Avenue, just before the little bridge. Shall I continue?). But when a signal light is replaced with flashing lights – which are more of a suggestion than an imperative – because “Crossing safety was not compromised as a result of this design”?
When you figure that out, holler. That’s okay. I’ll wait.
Furthermore, how does DOT know this? How did they arrive at this conclusion? Based on what? Can I sell you a beachfront bridge in Barstow?
I decided to conduct an informal survey at the location. On Monday afternoon, July 23, Wonder Dog and I ambled over to Emerson and Simpson. Grabbed a slice of shade near Garfield Street. Sat down. And counted cars in both directions. For about ten minutes. (Okay. I did most of the car counting. Kimber just sat there, doing what she does best: looking adorable.)
Final tally: 176 cars. In both directions. In about 10 minutes. On a Monday afternoon in July.
Noteworthy: While counting cars, a little girl on a razor scooter, maybe age 10 or so, attempted to cross at this intersection. Twice. She made it safely across both times. But note this: On her first attempt, the first two vehicles blew right through the flashing lights after they were activated. It wasn’t until the third vehicle – a black Ford F-150 – that traffic came to a complete stop.
Know how many vehicles stopped at the red traffic light at 5th Street, two blocks down? Every. Single. One.
Never fear. Per Mr. Young’s email, WSDOT is on the job in Hoquiam: “The only reason for the traffic signal system was to control traffic for pedestrian crossing.”
Curious choice of words, that. The “only” reason for the traffic signal was to control traffic for pedestrian crossing? That’s not enough?
I also called the Hoquiam School District. I spoke to Mr. Matt Kemph, Facility Maintenance Director for the district. When I said I was told that the decision to remove the traffic light and replace it with the flashing lights system was made in tandem with the school district, Kemph said that is “not correct.” He thought the decision was made by both the city and the DOT, together. “It was done without any communication with the school district at all,” said Kemph.
Kemph said the reason for removing the traffic light was that crossing guards are at the intersection, and that the light wasn’t there for traffic “but for the children crossing the street.” He said the DOT removed the light “because of the maintenance required on that light.”
Referencing safety concerns, Kemph pointed out that the only time crossing guards are at the intersection is for a short time on week day mornings and afternoons when school opens and lets out. This is pretty much what I heard from personnel from all three entities: the City of Hoquiam, the DOT, and the school district.
What about pedestrian traffic the rest of the day? Weekends? Holidays? Summer? Trips to the Bijou? Did those details escape the decision makers on this puppy?
Mr. Kemph forwarded me an email he sent to to Mr. Shay in which Kemph expresses his concerns. It’s dated July 3. The subject is “Traffic Control Light at Emerson and Simpson Avenue.” Writes Kemph:
“Recently the Traffic Control Light located at Emerson Ave and Simpson was removed by I believe WSDOT. This light had been placed for the safe crossing of our students at to (sic) our Central Elementary School and as approximately 70% of our students cross this intersection we are very concerned that the removal of this Traffic Control Light has placed a significant chance that one or more of our students are in harms (sic) way daily as they cross to and form our school. We are wondering what the plan is to ensure the wifely of our students while crossing this main arterial.
Matt Kemph Email to Brian Shay 02 Jul 2018
I’m kinda wondering that, too. Well. Me and Wonder Dog.
Kemph concludes, “We look forward to the future and hope that we can be part of the planning and discussion regarding the traffic control and revisions.”
Look. I don’t care who’s responsible for this stroke of genius. I don’t care who did or didn’t communicate with whom. I don’t even care about Amateur Night at the Bijou. What I do care about is pedestrian safety, specifically for school children and anyone trying to make this crossing in one piece.
Can we kindly get this fixed? Preferably before school starts? Or the next time my good dog and I hazard a walk down Simpson Avenue. Like tomorrow.