Alaska City Looks to Improve Pedestrian Safety Amid Growth

By ZACHARIAH BRYAN, The Tundra Drums | January 6, 2014

On Dec. 5, a 6-year-old girl was hit by a vehicle on Ptarmigan Road, near the school. The vehicle was moving slow, and the girl survived with minor injuries, but it was the exclamation point to a concern everyone in Bethel, Alaska, has had for years.

“The city of Bethel has grown a lot. It’s the third busiest airport in the state, it’s a big traffic area, and more and more people have gotten vehicles and it can be scary for walkers,” said Jacob Jensen, superintendent of the Lower Kuskokwim School District, who has to worry about the safety of kids walking to school every day.

pedestrian safetyIn a city where sidewalks appear to share the same fate with the dodo bird, it’s a common sight to see people walking on the edge of the road. Add short daylight hours, slippery roads, dark clothing, no lighting and a neglect of “pedestrian rules,” and a potentially deadly situation is created.

“I’ve seen that people are not remembering the pedestrian rules of the road. I’ve had a couple of times where I’ve seen someone on the side of the road and they’ll come out in front of me,” said Ronda Sargent, director of Parks and Recreation.

She said people need to look both ways before crossing, walk on the left side of the road when possible, and wear lights and reflective clothing.

Recently, there has been a push to give out free reflective tape. Last Halloween and at an event last month, Parks and Recreation gave out free tape to families. Sargent said the city is planning on buying reflective tape to give out tape on a regular basis, though she couldn’t say when that would be, exactly.

Making the streets themselves safer will require more work and more funding. Jensen said the school itself doesn’t have any power over the roads around it. That is left up to the city and the state.

In response to the incident involving the 6-year-old girl, the city acted quickly to install bright LED lights on Ptarmigan where the incident happened. This was done using a grant Bethel received to replace old street lights with brighter, energy conserving LED lights.

Still, there’s nowhere for kids to walk, and no distinct place for them to cross.

“It’s difficult on Ridgecrest because a lot of times kids will walk across where they’re not supposed to. You know, it’s what kids do, but what we need to do as adults is make sure traffic is safe for them,” said Jensen.

Jensen said the school has been trying to work with the state to attain funding to fix Ridgecrest, but the state put the project on hold for a number of years. LKSD was given a tentative date for the summer of 2015.

“I’m not willing to wait that long,” Jensen said.

Meanwhile, the school is looking to improve the road on its campus. Jensen said they have discussed improving the traffic flow, possibly by creating a one-way system, which would make it easier for parents to drop off their kids and just go.

“Right now everyone kind of goes everywhere,” Jensen said.

At the moment, no plan is set in stone for what the school road will look like. The discussion is ongoing.

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