forum

Photo by Andy Rogers

Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Jill Chamberlain who works for Minnesota’s Center for Prevention presented ideas about implementing a Safe Routes to School program to Eagan residents during a forum on pedestrian and bike safety Tuesday.

Residents plea for quick action

Eagan residents have continued to feel sadness following the November death of a 13-year-old who was on his way to school.

State Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, hosted of a forum on pedestrian and bike safety Tuesday at the Eagan Community Center where she heard several emotional pleas from residents to make sure this never happens again.

The issue is at a fever pitch since Patric Vitek, 13, of Eagan, was killed Nov. 1 after his bicycle collided with a car.

The Eagan Police Department reported the driver of the vehicle was headed east on Diffley Road and traveling in the center lane when the vehicle struck the rear tire of Vitek’s bicycle.

Diffley Road has two through lanes in both directions, and Police Chief Roger New said it is not a controlled intersection at the location of the collision.

Many residents urged everyone traveling through Eagan to slow down and watch for pedestrians especially before and after school.

Diffley Road is a 45 mph county highway near Northview Elementary, Dakota Hills Middle School and Eagan High School. It travels through a busy commercial district, several residential developments and several city parks.

Halverson said the forum was an opportunity to “look at what we want” and “dream together” for possible solutions.

“(Maybe it was) planned to get as many cars through the city as fast as we can, and maybe that’s not what we want anymore,” Halverson said. “Maybe that worked 20 years ago when the city was designed, but maybe not anymore.”

It’s not just Diffley Road, either. Residents pointed out that there are several county roads such as Lexington Avenue, Lone Oak Road, Yankee Doodle Road and Cliff Road where people don’t feel safe to cross.

At the end of the meeting Halverson summarized that she heard “we need action immediately, and the No. 1 desire is to see the speed limit lowered.”

Many residents expressed frustrations that changes didn’t happen sooner or fast enough.

State Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, who was part of the panel, and Halverson both admitted they been aware, but perhaps didn’t push action as forceful as they could. They plan to stay involved.

“This is something we needed to do a long time ago,” Carlson said. “We’re talking about a specific stretch of road we’ve been looking at for years, but we just haven’t been able to get anything done on it.”

“This went from being important to being essential,” Halverson said.

Carlson said it’s his understanding the area is already a school zone, unlike what has been previously reported.

“It can be done tomorrow to put up the school zone signs,” Carlson said. “That’s up to the entity that owns the road, which is the county.”

A school zone sign would increase the fine for speeding in a school zone.

But, to change the speed limit, there would need to be a traffic study.

Halverson said that’s set forth in state statute.

“If it’s a problem with a state law, if the problem is a misinterpretation or a miscommunication, we’ll try to work through it,” Halverson said.

Havlerson said it’s time to stop “passing the buck around.”

Eagan Mayor Mike Maguire; Dakota County commissioners Tom Egan and Joe Atkins; and Superintendent Mary Kreger announced last week they plan to secure necessary approvals from each of their respective elected bodies to lower the speed limit, according to a release from Dakota County.

While was forum Tuesday was led by state officials about what they could do, there were representatives from the city, police department, county, and school in the crowd.

After hearing residents express frustrations with the school district, Kreger agrees that Diffley Road is dangerous and shares the anger and sadness with the residents. She said the district is committed to partnering with the county, city and state on solutions.

“What we’re doing is working with how to get through some of this bureaucratic stuff so we can get something done now,” Kreger said.

She said she shared the frustration with audience members that they can’t just immediately change the speed limit.

Egan, who was in the crowd Tuesday, said it’s his understanding the reason there are no signs is that “it’s a hazardous crossing. The school district doesn’t want students crossing that road.”

Students who live south of Diffley Road have the option to be bused.

Egan said the coalition of the school district, city and county is already talking about signage and coming up with a methodology of reducing the speed. He said there’s a lot of work already being done behind the scenes.

An open house Dec. 11 is expected to cover several potential safety improvements beyond installing a school zone and lowering the speed limit.

The exact time and location has yet to be decided, according to Dakota County.

Decisions on those improvements are expected to be made by March 1.

The city had a plan this year to replace the stoplights at Braddock Trail at Diffley Road and install an number other safety measures, but many residents didn’t feel like the project was comprehensive enough and it was postponed until 2020. At the time there was a plan to construct an additional lane along Braddock Trail north of the Diffley Road intersection, but many in the neighborhood feared the addition would increase amount of traffic through their residential neighborhood.

Following the open house in February, officials decided that there were bigger issues than just the Diffley and Braddock intersection and they would delay the project until 2020 to allow time for a more significant project.

“It’s incredibly unfortunate that this tragic accident occurred before we were able to resolve this and get it back on the agenda,” Egan said.

Residents have been making the rounds through area governing bodies since the incident.

Concerned citizens also spoke during a District 196 School Board meeting Nov. 18 and a Dakota County Board meeting Nov. 12 to express their frustrations about Diffley Road,

Residents noted that students also attend after school activities and travel to the athletic fields after school, highlighting the need for a solution beyond just busing students before and after school.

“Kids will be kids,” one resident said. “You can ask them a million times not to cross that road where he did, but if you move a deer crossing sign, will they not cross there?”

State Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, House Transportation Finance and Policy Division Chair, was also in attendance at the forum to give an update on the Minnesota Legislature’s current transportation policy.

He said there’s an effort to get increased funding for pedestrian and biking safety initiatives and hopes the bills will be heard in 2020.

MnDOT’s Tim Henkel and Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Jill Chamberlain also spoke about the Safe Routes to School Program. They both offered up resources to help the community move their initiatives forward that included both grants and curriculum for the schools on bike and pedestrian safety.

More information about the Safe Routes to School initiative is available at www.saferoutesinfo.org.

Halverson said she plans to schedule another forum in about two weeks.

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