Pedestrians say crossing Laney-Walker can be risky

Georgia Health Sciences University student Jose Navarro watched in horror as the blue Chevy Silverado slammed on its brakes and nearly hit him and a patient in a crosswalk on Laney-Walker Boulevard. Other traffic had stopped but the driver apparently didn't see them until the last moment, something the third-year College of Dental Medicine student had trouble understanding.

"There are flashing lights everywhere and there are stop signs everywhere," said Navarro, 24. "And there's plenty of people walking, it wasn't just me and that guy. How could this guy see all the signs and not stop?"

Students and staff say these kinds of near-misses are common on Laney-Walker and sometimes it is worse, as a Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics worker found out March 10 when he was struck by a pickup in a crosswalk.

University President Ricardo Azziz said that accident bolstered his argument for closing the stretch of Laney-Walker between 15th Street and R.A. Dent Boulevard that bisects his campus and forces students and staff to sometimes cross it several times a day. Some Augusta commissioners, however, say they are not yet convinced closure is necessary and other avenues should be explored to allow vehicles to keep using the street.

The March accident, however, was not an isolated one.

A check of records kept by Augusta Traffic Engineering found that eight people have been hit in that stretch of Laney-Walker since 1995, most of them since 2004, and all of the pedestrians were in a crosswalk at the time.

The number of near-accidents several years ago got the attention of Daniel W. Rahn, MCG's president at the time, said Chief Bill McBride, the director of public safety for GHSU.

"As those incidents occurred, the close calls and the near misses, Dr. Rahn was paying attention," McBride said. "He's sitting up there on the third floor of the (administration) building (on Laney-Walker) and he can hear sometimes the tires squealing and he's concerned. So we started pushing traffic interdiction then."

That came to a head in 2008 when graduate student Dr. Ji Cheng was hit and killed by a city bus at Laney-Walker and 15th Street. There have been nine other nonfatal pedestrian accidents in that same intersection since 1994, most of them since 2004. After the 2008 accident, GHSU police got permission and training to begin using radar and they are now out in force, particularly during rush times when people tend to speed, McBride said. That's also when traffic is the highest.

A Dec. 1 count by Traffic Engineering found 376 cars an hour pass into that stretch of Laney-Walker from 15th Street and 315 an hour come from R.A. Dent during morning rush, numbers that are essentially reversed during prime time afternoon rush. Traffic Engineer Steve Cassell has said he hopes to make a more complete traffic count, including those that are going to MCG and those that are just passing through, in addition to the impact of closure on nearby roads, by early May.

Until that report is ready, the Augusta Commission's Engineering Services Committee, where the closure request landed, won't be holding any more public hearings, chairman Alvin Mason said. He said he wanted to explore all options but sounded skeptical about the need for closure.

"I understand Dr. Azziz's focus and I don't blame him for trying to do what is best for Georgia Health Sciences University," Mason said. "My focus as a commissioner though is I have to do what is best for the citizens of Augusta. Because alleviating the problem for him could create a problem for the taxpaying citizens" if the city has to widen other streets, for instance, to accommodate increased traffic.

Before Azziz's arrival, McBride had proposed creating raised crosswalks of six inches or so that would become like long speed bumps. That should still happen, Azziz said.

"We are looking at many options," he said. "And in fact, regardless of whether a part of Laney-Walker is created as a pedestrian area in the center of campus or not, certainly the crosswalk areas throughout campus and around our new dental school should be raised because that actually increases the security of our individuals."

The university was already exploring a plan to take Laney-Walker from four lanes to two lanes in that section prior to Azziz's arrival. But closure to create a pedestrian mall in that section still seems like the best idea, he said, particularly in light of the history of that section and the fact that the new building for the College of Dental Medicine will be across Laney-Walker from the old building that is still going to be used daily.

"Waiting for many more people to get hit, waiting for the inevitable increase in accidents that will happen when students begin to cross the street between the new dental school and their old lecture facilities is simply, I think, irresponsible, from ourselves and from the community leadership," Azziz said.

But Mason argues that if students at two high schools on Laney-Walker a block away have to cross it every day, why is it wrong to ask those at GHSU to continue doing it?

"If we're requiring high-schoolers to understand how to walk across the street, to me we certainly should be looking at all avenues to ensure that college students, adults, understand how to walk across the street," he said.

After a couple of close calls, Navarro does understand how to cross that section of Laney-Walker and the surrounding streets. He follows one hard and fast rule.

"As a pedestrian what you do is you make eye contact (with the driver)," he said. "You don't walk across the street unless you've made eye contact. The lights don't mean anything anymore."

GHSU worker hit crossing street
Experts weigh in on Laney-Walker design
MCG, Laney-Walker area pursue separate visions
Narrowing still on table

Before any talk of closing the section of Laney-Walker Boulevard that runs through Georgia Health Sciences University to create a pedestrian mall, the university was looking to convert the street from four lanes to two lanes, officials said. And that proposal is still being studied, University President Ricardo Azziz said. In fact, the university's ideal proposal would have the road narrowed to two lanes heading into campus and then a pedestrian mall in the center that would close the road to all pass-through traffic except emergency vehicles.

"We still think closure is the best option," Azziz said.

Augusta Commissioner Matt Aitken, whose district includes that section of Laney-Walker, said he would like to see traffic still able to move through.

"It's not a win-win to close it down versus narrow it down to two lanes," he said. The city should be seeking to balance the interests at play here, Aitken said.

"We definitely want to see the campus thrive," he said. "But we've also got to make sure that our traffic is moving in our city as well and that it doesn't cut the lifelines off of some other parts of the area."

-- Tom Corwin, staff writer

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