Friday, August 01, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Help walkers and bicyclists

As Cabot gears up for construction of the new North Interchange on Hwy. 67/167, adding two roundabouts on Lincoln Street near the high school and the beautification of West Main Street into downtown, city leaders and planners have overlooked an improvement that could help many people — adding a protected pedestrian and bicycle bridge onto the Hwy. 89/West Main Street overpass.

Over the years, the lines of the overpass were moved to allow four lanes instead of two. Every day, there is someone walking or riding precariously close to traffic. It happens at night and in the rain. Bicyclists have to wait on the signal lights for a break in traffic to pedal quickly up and over in one of the traffic lanes to get to the other side.

They are using the overpass to cross over to shop at nearby stores.

Some are headed to work at Zaxby’s, Colton’s and other restaurants. Drivers have to slow or move into the next lane. Unlike the James Street and Main Street overpasses in Jacksonville, there is no sidewalk, just the narrow space of a white fog line. In icy weather, pedestrians have to walk on the frozen slush pushed to the sides by snow plows.

What would happen if someone was texting while driving, or a pedestrian listening to their headphones walk wide? If they were clipped by a vehicle, would they tumble onto the freeway several feet below?

According to Cabot Police Department spokesman Keith Graham, there are no reports of a pedestrian or cyclist being hit on the overpass in the past five years, but that could change when traffic increases as the city’s economic and population growth continues.

An alternative to using the overpass is to walk or ride across Hwy. 67/167. It may seem safer to some people. It has risks as vehicles are traveling 65 mph or more compared to the slower speeds of the overpass. However, according to state law it is illegal to walk or ride across a controlled-access highway, except at designated points.

A pedestrian and bicycle bridge bolted alongside the overpass would benefit many. Walkers and riders would be protected from traffic, as the concrete and steel guard rail already in place would separate them from vehicles. It doesn’t have an ornate structure, and it could blend in by being at road level.

A pedestrian and bicycle bridge could help Cabot become a more bicycle friendly community. Some residents do not have cars, cannot afford gas and must walk or ride. Others may choose to be “green” and leave the car at home and get some exercise. Members of the Cabot Country Cruisers, a local bicycle group, would most likely support a pedestrian bridge.

It would also help with traffic flow, as a bridge would provide people living in the Northport Apartments, Sun Terrace and other housing areas with a way to get to the new library under construction at the old Knight’s store.

According to the July issue of Arkansas Highways magazine, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department is working on a new statewide bicycling and pedestrian transportation plan. Perhaps they will consider the West Main Street overpass since it is a state highway.

The city is already working with the state Highway and Transportation Department on many other traffic improvement projects. Why not add a bicycle and pedestrian bridge to the immediate plans? It shouldn’t cost as much as redesigning interchange cloverleaves as planned for Exit 19, and it might just save a life.

Jacksonville, too, needs a pedestrian bridge over the now-closed railroad crossing at Graham Road and North First Street. We see people of all ages walking over the tracks to cross the tracks there instead of going over the Main Street bridge, which does have sidewalks and are frequently used. Many people are on their way to shop downtown or visit the Martin Street Recreation Center.

It would be a welcome gesture that Jacksonville is committed to the area, where shuttered storefronts still remain after about eight years since the city closed that crossing to traffic. A concrete blockade with road-closed signs still inform drivers — as if they don’t know nearly a decade later — that the crossing is gone. A simple landscaping project would alleviate some of the government-caused blight and a pedestrian bridge would show that this side of town is still open for business.

For inspiration, look at Sherwood’s pedestrian bridges over Kiehl and Maryland avenues. They might not be used as much as they should be, but they give walkers there a safe alternative when crossing those busy thoroughfares.

In the end, communities benefit when they take care of their walkers and cyclists.