Two fatal accidents have occured in the past year at the intersection of North Atherton Street and West Park Avenue.
Nearby locals want change.
The most recent fatal crash prompted residents living in the College Heights community to ask for a meeting with local leaders. State College police Chief Tom King spoke for much of the meeting Tuesday in the State College Church of Christ where about 110 people congregated for a discussion about the danger and possible solutions for the intersection.
The first fatal accident occurred in July 2014 when Penn State freshman Eva O’Brian, 18, jogged across North Atherton Street against the signal on the northern side of the intersection where there was no crosswalk , according to State College public works director Mark Whitfield. She was struck by a Ford F-250 pickup traveling southbound.
The second deadly accident, for which a police investigation is ongoing, happened two weeks ago on June 22. Sgt. Todd Scholton told the Centre Daily Times a car driven by Kimberly Griffin turned left onto Park Avenue when it collided with a scooter driven by Joel Reed, 39. He was pronounced dead at Mount Nittany Medical Center.
“The intersection has always had safety concerns, primarily due to the heavy traffic volumes, vehicular speeds, high traffic volume turning movements and pedestrian/bicycle crossings,” Whitfield said in an email. “Folks living in West College Heights, who walk to campus, can only safely cross Atherton at a signalized intersection, which limits them to Hillcrest (Avenue), Park (Avenue) and Curtin (Road), with Park being the most logical crossing. Pedestrians crossing five lanes of traffic at a busy intersection obviously cause safety concerns.”
College Heights Association president Donna Queeney also said the intersection, where there have been 225 accidents since 1995, has been a hazard long before the two recent fatal accidents. There was also a deadly crash at the intersection in 2001 and 54 injuries in 20 years.
“It’s been a real problem for years, and the last few years we have tried hard for red light cameras there,” Queeney. “I cross there twice every day, and it’s the hardest thing to do every day. We need authorizations from the state legislature, which has authorized red light cameras in Philadelphia, five counties around it and Pittsburgh. We had a petition that we sent to our state legislatures, and it went nowhere.”
Queeney plans to continue pushing for Automatic Red Light Enforcement cameras at the intersection, and King urged those in attendance to contact state legislators to permit the use of the cameras in Centre County.
King said such cameras would be limited to select intersections where people were most likely to violate traffic, bicycle and pedestrian laws. State legislators would have to permit the county to use the cameras and local government would have to convince the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that the cameras are needed at certain intersections.
King said the cameras would be locally funded if permitted by the state.
Short-term solutions by State College police include the use of non-enforcement cameras loaned to the department by PennDOT at the West Park Avenue and North Atherton Street intersection to monitor behavior of drivers and cyclists before Penn State’s fall semester and at the beginning of the semester.
The police department will also target the area for driver, cyclist and pedestrian violations through the fall.
Whitfield said there have been several improvements to the intersection in the last five years. In 2010, he said, the borough’s Transportation Commission conducted a safety study of all intersections in the borough and ranked them for crash severity.
“The purpose of the study was to prioritize intersections in terms of improvements which would result not only less crashes, but less severe crashes,” Whitfield said. “While Park/Atherton had a high number of crashes, the severity of the crashes was very low, which resulted in the intersection being ranked very low in priority in terms of improvements.”
Improvements since the study include pedestrian countdown signals, a pedestrian lead interval where pedestrians receive the walk sign five seconds in advance of the green light for traffic and the “NO RIGHT TURN on RED” sign for southbound Atherton traffic was made to be all day instead of 15 hours per day.
Whitfield said PennDOT will play a key role in improving the intersection’s safety as it plans reconstruction of Atherton Street between Aaron Drive and Park Avenue.
“The intersection is within a state right-of-way, and the signal and intersection design are permitted by PennDOT,” he said. “... Any proposed improvements to the intersection will need to be approved by PENNDOT.”
Queeney feels a number of factors have contributed to the intersection’s danger to commuters.
“I’m certainly not a traffic expert, but the obvious things are that people are constantly going well above the speed limit there,” she said. “Atherton Street also wasn’t made to handle the volume of traffic it gets. It’s also not unusual to stand at the intersection and see several cars run the red light. You have to be very cautious when the light turns and you have the walk signal. You can’t just start walking.”
People in attendance made several suggestions to improve the intersection’s safety, including taking down “diverters” set up to curb traffic in the College Heights community, a proposition Queeney does not favor.
“Those were put in, because people tore through College Heights and made it unsafe for everyone that lives there,” Queeney said. “They were controversial, but that was getting to be a real problem. That should not change. Those roads are not meant to be collector roads. They’re neighborhood roads.”
Other proposals from the crowd to improve the intersection’s safety included reducing the speed limit near the intersection, putting in speed bumps, implementing an exclusive left turn arrow from southbound North Atherton Street onto West Park Avenue, giving pedestrians a 10-second head start for crossing the street, giving pedestrians a turn in the light signal cycle and building an underpass or overpass.