Can walking, cycling be made safer in Scottsbluff, Gering? Groups set out to find out

May 23, 2019

SCOTTSBLUFF — The Tri-Cities Active Living Committee and the Panhandle Public Health District (PPHD) spent the week of May 13-17 traveling around to schools in Scottsbluff and Gering to conduct audit walks as students arrived at school.

The Tri-Cities Active Living Advisory Committee is an organization in Gering, Terrytown and Scottsbluff that looks for safe routes around town, including routes to school to make walking and biking safe and accessible to all. Audit walks were completed in Scottsbluff at Westmoor Elementary, Lincoln Heights and Scottsbluff High School, and in Gering at Lincoln Elementary.

On a visit to Scottsbluff High School on May 16, members of the committee spent time traveling around the school from 7-8 a.m., taking note of concerns. Janelle Visser, health educator at PPHD, said the audit walk was being conducted to determine how PPHD could properly fund the schools it was visiting to make areas around local schools safer with $1,000 grants it had received.

“The grant monies would go toward things like signage and vests for crossing guards,” Visser said.

After concerns were raised at a recent Scottsbluff City Council meeting, the speed limit in front of the high school was lowered to 20 miles per hour. Committee members observed some changes to traffic patterns, but also had other concerns.

At 27th Street and Fourth Avenue, there is no crossing guard or stop light, but students could push a button on the west side of the road and cross at the crosswalk. Students said they had noticed a difference in the traffic in the two weeks since the speed limit was reduced and felt it was safer to cross here than before. They also noticed people still speed.

Scottsbluff Police Chief Kevin Spencer said his officers have stepped up their presence in the area and have been informing people they have pulled over of the new rules.

During the audit walk, members of the committee noticed drivers who appeared to be of high school age were following the speed limit while adults were inattentive.

“It’s amazing how fast they can get their speed up,” Visser said.

The highest observed speed limit during the audit walk was 28 mph.

Visser noticed several students who did not push the button and simply continued walking into the crosswalk. A sign lights up as students push the button, but anyone crossing the road at Fourth Avenue must still wait for traffic to stop before crossing. Even when Visser pushed the button, no vehicle stopped for her until a school bus did.

Visser also observed one vehicle stop in the crosswalk at Fourth Avenue while a student hopped out of the passenger side and proceeded onto school property.

“I would be worried I’d be rear-ended if I did that,” Visser said.

At the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 27th Street, vehicles turning west onto 27th street routinely drove above the posted speed limit. Nearly every student who crossed at this intersection pushed the button to cross and, when permitted, ran across the street.

Students said the traffic is still too fast at this intersection, but felt safer than a few weeks ago.

Jen Pedersen, English professor at Western Nebraska Community College, rides her bicycle several times a week to work and passes in front of the high school. Pedersen noted the new pylons in the middle of the road, which stretch from Fifth Avenue to Fourth Avenue, has made traffic safer. Pedersen said she was happy there is now a crossing guard at Third Avenue, but suggested more would be beneficial.

“You have four different places drivers are constantly trying to look for kids,” Pedersen said.

Committee member Susan Wiedeman observed the crossing at Second Avenue where a crossing guard assisted students in reaching the high school.

Many students were dropped off on the corner of Second Avenue and 27th Street and crossed with the crossing guard while the driver of the vehicle turned east. Students who walked skipped the First Avenue crossing and chose to continue to Second Avenue to cross with the crossing guard.

Committee member Katie Bradshaw said the slip lane two blocks away on Broadway was another safety issue.

“Its sole purpose is to speed traffic through a corner, but it’s dangerous for pedestrians,” Bradshaw said. “It’s not the best infrastructure to have especially around a school area.”

Another issue on Second Avenue is that of parking and vehicle traffic on the road.

“You have two sides of parking along the road,” Wiedeman said. “It’s horrible.”

Spencer knows there is an issue along “the avenues” and the police department is looking at ways to mitigate the issue.

“Part of the problem is these roads are older and narrower,” Spencer said.

Wiedeman said the Second Avenue intersection was confusing and witnessed drivers unsure if they could turn onto the street or not. She also observed drivers not following the law when a crossing guard was in the street.

One issue for those involved in the audit was the lack of signs to let drivers know they are approaching or in a school zone. Spencer said there should be notifications as you approach a school zone and in the zone, but the committee felt they are lacking in Gering and Scottsbluff.

The issue is hoped to be resolved during a joint engineering study by the school district and the city of Scottsbluff.

PPHD will now identify priorities for the grants and make purchases. They will move into an implementation and data collection phase before creating a report. PPHD will then meet with school staff, parents and the community about ways to continue to make schools safer.

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