Note: This story was updated at 8:42 a.m. April 15.
The City Council approved a contract to install a stoplight on Oak Ridge Turnpike in front of Oak Ridge High School in a 4-3 vote on Monday.
Public Works Director Gary Cinder said the light will be green most of the time on Oak Ridge Turnpike. But it will turn red when cars are leaving the High School, giving those drivers a green light.
And the traffic signal lights will turn all-red when pedestrians are crossing, Cinder said.
There was some opposition to the new traffic signal. Those who objected, including City Council member Rick Chinn, had concerns about adding another stoplight on the Turnpike, and they suggested building a pedestrian bridge over the Turnpike instead.
City officials said the new light could eliminate the need for a crossing guard. Installing it could cost roughly $177,000. It will be paid for using unspent money from the Special Programs Fund, the fund set up for traffic, pedestrian, and bicycle safety projects using money from the traffic cameras that were removed last year.
The contract was awarded to S&W Contracting Company Inc. of Murfreesboro. That company submitted the lowest of two bids.
Council postponed a vote on the stoplight contract in March. The installation was approved last summer by a different Council, which included four members who are no longer members.
City officials had said the light could be installed by August, but the postponement of the contract vote to this month’s meeting will likely delay the completion date, possibly until after school starts later this year.
Voting for the traffic signal on Monday were Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Smith and City Council members Trina Baughn, Kelly Callison, and Chuck Hope.
Voting against it were Chinn, Mayor Warren Gooch, and Council member Charlie Hensley.
“Putting in a red light at this point in time is not good,” Chinn said. “It’s a waste of money…I think there are many other alternatives we should look at.”
Among them were pedestrian crosswalks like those used on Emory Valley Road or a grand, iconic pedestrian bridge.
“To me, we’re thinking too small,” Chinn said. “What we need in this town is something special.”
He and others suggested there could be grant money available for a pedestrian bridge, including because of the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park designation that applies to Oak Ridge as well as Hanford, Washington, and Los Alamos, New Mexico.
A bridge over Alcoa Highway cost $1.5 million, Chinn said, and a smaller bridge in Oak Ridge might be built for $1 million to $1.5 million.
But others, including Baughn and Callison, were skeptical that students, including those lugging large band instruments, would use the bridge rather than just walking across the street.
Baughn said Karns has a bridge, but kids don’t use it. Instead, she said, they cross the street with a crossing guard.
Several people pointed out that a bridge would have to comply with the American with Disabilities Act. Andy Howe, secretary of the Traffic Safety Advisory Board, said a circular ramp would be required for the bridge, meaning the tennis courts at Oak Ridge High School might have to be relocated.
A few seemed skeptical that the money for a pedestrian bridge could be raised quickly or that grants might be easily obtained.
“I’m not aware of any real state grants that are available for something like this,” Cinder said.
Smith said the national park is not even funded yet, so it’s probably not realistic to believe additional funding will be available.
“There’s no free lunches available,” she said.
A pedestrian bridge has been previously advocated at that intersection, and Smith said its estimated cost was $1.5 million 20 years ago.
The traffic signal is “an excellent solution to an extremely longstanding issue in the city,” Smith said. “We need a solution that fits our needs.”
Regarding fundraising for a pedestrian bridge, Baughn said there are already several drives to raise money, including for a Blankenship Field revitalization, the Friendship Bell at Alvin K. Bissell Park, and a new building for Emory Valley Center.
“The money is only going to stretch so far,” Baughn said. “In the meantime, we have kids crossing there every day…We have an issue that needs to be addressed now.”
In March 2014, the City Council asked the Traffic Safety Advisory Board to review possible traffic control measures to improve safety at the Turnpike crossing between the High School and the Oak Ridge Civic Center and Public Library. After a few months of study and considering several alternatives, the TSAB recommended a stoplight there in July, and Council, which then included four members who are no longer members, approved the installation.
Council members said somewhere between 100 to 300 students per day can cross the Turnpike between the Oak Ridge High School and the Civic Center and Public Library.
Other options considered by the TSAB included a flashing beacon, a pedestrian guardian system, a hybrid beacon, crossing guards, added road markings, and reactivation of the speed cameras.
“The TSAB considered many different combinations of the above elements, but in the final analysis, pedestrian safety could best be served by an on-demand traffic signal with a pedestrian all-red phase,” TSAB Chairman Bill Polfus said in a July 15, 2014, email to City Council and City Manager Mark Watson. “Once activated, it would be in synchronization with other lights on the Turnpike (SR95) but would include an all-red phase of 25 to 30 seconds. If not activated, the Turnpike (SR95) would remain green. This option is expensive but also eliminates the need for a crossing guard.”
Jeanne Hicks Powers says
Excellent decision! Way to go to all the CC members that voted for this. Keep moving forward….
Philip W Nipper says
I wonder if the outcome would have been different if the “free money” from from the camera funds were not available?? I agree with those who voted against the measure. Seems a device or devices similar to the Emory Valley crossing would have worked here to improve pedestrian safety.
I didn’t include this in the story, but Bill Polfus, chair of the city’s Traffic Safety Advisory Board, said last month that the city can’t use flashing lights, like those used at the push-button crosswalk on Emory Valley Road, in front of the High School. He said that’s because the flashing lights would be too close to where cars come out of the intersection.
I know the TSAB evaluated other options, but I don’t recall specifically what they all were. But I’ll post them here if I get that info again.
Philip W Nipper says
Thanks John. Yes that information would be nice to know like if the TSAB considered the possibility of re-locating the parking lot exit, re-locating the crosswalk or considered other safety devices such as in pavement warning lights. I think having a ready supply of cash made it too easy to form a solution to a problem that is largely imaginary.
You can read more about the August 2014 Oak Ridge City Council resolution approving the stoplight installation here: http://www.oakridgetn.gov/images/uploads/documents/agendas/08112014.PDF
The stoplight section starts at Page 31.
You can read Bill Polfus’ memo to City Manager Mark Watson and City Council on Page 34. It discusses the other options considered by TSAB, including a flashing beacon, a pedestrian guardian system, a hybrid beacon, crossing guards, added road markings, and reactivation of the speed cameras.
Gary Love says
I think an elevated walkway with WELCOME TO OAK RIDGE A GOOD PLACE TO LIVE written on both sides and a digital sign with Oak Ridge events on the side column would do two things. The first it would help focus the centralization of our city, and the second it would convey information about what our city offers. We must think differently if we are to improve our lives.
Mark Caldwell says
I’m in agreement with Ms. Baughn’s vote regarding this issue. Just want to show that I’m not always against her. But why in the world Mr. Gooch and Mr. Hensley voted against it, I may never know.
I checked my notes, and Charlie said he agreed with Rick Chinn and wanted something iconic and “not another red light in the middle of town.”
I don’t think Mayor Gooch commented on his vote.