There are so many wonderful and forward-thinking events, transformations and resurrection of historical buildings, the completion and use of the Raccoon River Trail and much more going on in Perry. That’s fantastic and exciting.
However, as much as Perry is moving forward and drawing visitors, it is not a time to forget what still needs to be done – sidewalks.
More than 21 years ago, this newspaper was running editorials about the need for sidewalks on the north end of First Street, otherwise known as Iowa Highway 144 as it proceeds through town and exits on the north side, past Bar Jac Estates and the Crossroads Church.
More than 21 years ago, the Perry City Council was discussing the need for sidewalks from Park Street north. Today? Still no sidewalks. And while this editorial focuses on the north end of First Street, it is noted there are no sidewalks to speak of east of 16th Street along Willis Avenue, or for that matter north on 18th Street to the Perry High School/Middle School.
But for now, this editorial addresses the north end of First Avenue. There are still no sidewalks, despite a number of serious accidents that have occurred along that stretch. Granted, these accidents don’t happen every day, but no one keeps track of the near misses. People who drive that stretch tell stories of people of all ages walking along the sides of First Street, and noticing them at the last minute, able to avoid hitting the pedestrians.
About 11 years ago, a couple of young men, teenagers, were walking along the edge of the street when they were struck by a vehicle. Both were seriously injured, and one young man who was not expected to survive defied the odds.
So, you ask, why does that matter 11 years or so later? Because those individuals are still carrying the scars, mental and physical of what happened there. And because the potential for accidents as serious, if not deadly still exists.
Additionally, 11 years later, there is more traffic, both pedestrians and vehicles that pass along the stretch of road. Crossroads Church not only has services and events for the congregation members, the building also houses offices and services, such as addiction counseling offices and group meetings, and a food pantry. People going to and from these meetings and offices often don’t have driver’s licenses which increases the pedestrian traffic flow. People driving vehicles to the meetings increase the traffic flow.
Take some time to drive by the area occasionally and you will see small children, as well as people of all ages. Recently, a young man was walking along the west edge of the street, nervously looking behind him to gauge the traffic as he walked. On the other side of the street, a teenaged girl was walking to school as a much younger, most likely 5-6-year old, trailed behind. One step the wrong direction at the wrong time and the child would not have much of a future.
City Administrator Butch Niebuhr said it is not for lack of trying to come up with solutions to the sidewalk issue, but there are complicating factors. The city has to work with the Iowa Department of Transportation on any plans, particularly any construction. That means a lot of back-and-forth and reviewing by the state. . Additionally, many of the houses built along both sides of the highway were built when that area was still outside the city limits, where no ordinances require sidewalks.
Niebuhr, as well as previous city administrators, has tried to come up with solutions over the years, including building a trail. However, that option is difficult because as Highway 144 goes north, it narrows from four lanes to two, with two deep ditches on each side, and not much in the way of a shoulder. That configuration is called rural construction. That means the cost to construct a trail would be extremely expensive as it would require extensive reworking and grading to build a trail.
The high cost and design problems were echoed by Don Stevens, an engineer with the DOT. He said that sidewalks and trails along a state highway within the city limits is the city’s responsibility. However, there are trail grants the city could apply for to help cover those costs.
Perry officials currently have a plan with the DOT, Stevens said, that will be reviewed and discussed with Perry very soon. That plan is to restructure the traffic flow on First Street into three lanes. That would mean single-lane traffic on each side, with a turning lane in the center. That would then leave room to mark paths on each side of the road, delineated by a painted line, for pedestrians, cyclists and skateboarders.
Stevens said that option was done this spring in Atlantic, where his office is housed, and it is already making it safer for people to cross the street and for cyclists with the paths marked on each side of the street.
The process is much more cost-effective, because no reconstruction is required. The process means removing the existing highway markings and painting new ones, along with putting up new signs. Stevens said the city of Perry would like to see the DOT do an overlay on the street as the highway goes through Perry, which means more construction could be done to change traffic flows. However, that is not in any DOT plans for the near future.
Niebuhr discussed the three-lane option during the June 3 Perry City Council meeting, bringing council members up to date on the progress.
In a later interview, Niebuhr noted that there are other areas of Perry that do not have sidewalks, not because building sidewalks isn’t required by the city for new construction, but because variances have been granted by members of the city’s variance board, and ultimately approved by the Perry City Council over the years. He noted that none of the streets in the housing development on the south side of Iowa Highway 141 have sidewalks
On the flip-side, the two new churches built along North Eighth Street, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and Calvary Tabernacle Church, put in sidewalks and never asked for a variance. The officials of those two churches obviously placed great priority on sidewalks. It would seem that sidewalks should be a priority any time new construction takes place and that variances on building sidewalks should very seldom be granted. And, in the case of north First Street as it moves out of town, it needs to be made a priority before another serious accident injures pedestrians.
Isn’t more than 21 years long enough to make a change and difference that improves the safety of Perry citizens regardless of where they live?