Pedestrian access in limbo

Despite urging from the city and Amtran and despite the pro-pedestrian thrust of its 2011 Plank Road Pedestrian Access Study, PennDOT has not committed to incorporate crosswalks and pedestrian signals in upcoming improvements to the complex intersection at 17th Street and Pleasant Valley Boulevard.

That’s a problem, according to city Planning Director Lee Slusser, because if PennDOT fails to incorporate pedestrian facilities at such a busy site when it has the chance, it will undermine efforts by the city and Logan Township to make the county’s chief commercial corridor walkable.

It’s not a problem PennDOT can solve yet because engineers need to evaluate safety and practicality concerns before the department can commit, according to Vince Greenland, PennDOT assistant District 9 executive.

Underfunded, but in design and slated for construction in 2016, the project – intended to relieve backups – might call for adding a second dedicated left turn lane on Pleasant Valley Boulevard and second left turn lanes on 17th Street for access to both Pleasant Valley and Valley View boulevards, according to Greenland.

Adding a lane to make five on Pleasant Valley Boulevard and adding two to make eight on 17th Street between the boulevards will make it difficult to create safe pedestrian passage on an already difficult intersection, according to Greenland.

The complexity of vehicle signalization designed to minimize wait times for motorists adds to that difficulty because of the potential for adding to those wait times, according to Greenland.

The lack of “longitudinal” sidewalks, leading to the launch points for crosswalks, and narrow berms that don’t provide room for those, cast doubt on whether now is the time, according to Greenland.

“We said from the beginning we would be willing to put the crossings in,” Greenland said. “But I don’t think we said immediately.”

The lack of sidewalks leading to the crosswalk launch points creates a “chicken or egg” situation, according to Greenland.

Does it make sense to create crosswalks and install signals when there are no sidewalks on which pedestrians can easily reach those crosswalks?

Conversely, does it make sense to build sidewalks if there are no crosswalks and signals to allow pedestrians to cross safely?

The solution, according to Slusser, is for each party involved – the municipalities, property owners and PennDOT – to take care of their responsibilities as the opportunity arises.

Since the release of the study, the city and township have been requiring businesses applying for land development along the Pleasant Valley corridor to build sidewalks, even though in the city’s case, the ones built by the seven businesses so ordered have been “sidewalks to nowhere,” Slusser said.

Likewise, PennDOT should install the pedestrian facilities, even if there are no sidewalks nearby yet to make them generally practical to use, according to Slusser.

“The City of Altoona’s problem with PennDOT’s potential refusal to build crosswalks that don’t link up to sidewalks is that this holds PennDOT to a different standard than the Plank Road Pedestrian Access Study asks the city to hold its own taxpaying businesses to,” Slusser wrote in an email to Greenland. “This seems like a grossly unfair position that might politically force the City of Altoona to stop requiring its businesses to build sidewalks, unless they link to existing sidewalks.”

And if the city required sidewalks only if they linked up to existing ones, “the vision of the Plank Road Pedestrian Access Study would never be built,” Slusser wrote.

“You have to start somewhere,” said Eric Wolf, general manager of Amtran, which passed a resolution Wednesday urging PennDOT to include the pedestrian facilities.

It will take a long time, Slusser said.

Using the same piece-by-piece strategy he is recommending now, Patton and Ferguson townships created a fully accessible North Atherton commercial corridor, he wrote.

But it took 40 years.

Sidewalks “may not link up for decades,” he wrote.

The effort is “barely started” here, he said.

Because municipalities can only impose land development regulations when a building permit is pulled, there’s no way to get all the sidewalks along the corridor built at once, he wrote.

PennDOT plans to consider compromise solutions, at least, according to Greenland.

Those may include installing the facilities but not activating them until sidewalks nearby make them accessible, he said.

They may also include PennDOT constructing some of those sidewalks itself, although that is not a preference, he said.

And they may include installing pushbutton-activated pedestrian signals that would only provide a crossing signal for pedestrians when there were pedestrians ready to cross – otherwise not adding to wait times for motorists.

That setup would require adjustments in the synchronization of all the traffic signalization coordinated with the signals in the intersection, he indicated.

PennDOT is also considering a roundabout but potentially safer crossing of 17th Street between the boulevards: crossing Pleasant Valley Boulevard to the downtown side, then crossing 17th Street, then recrossing the boulevard, Greenland said.

Currently, PennDOT has about $450,000 available for the intersection project, which will ultimately cost “in the millions,” Greenland said.

Crosswalks and signalization would not add much to the cost, but construction of sidewalks nearby might, he indicated.

Economic development agencies, including the Blair County Chamber of Commerce, have identified pedestrian access, especially in Pleasant Valley, as a key element of livability that can help attract people to the area, which is key to retaining and adding jobs, they said.

And pedestrian improvements have been identified as a particular priority on 17th Street, said Patrick Miller, executive vice president of Altoona Blair County Development Corp.

PennDOT should do “whatever [it] can” to make it happen, he said.

It’s understandable that PennDOT doesn’t want to build crosswalks to nowhere, Slusser said.

“It may look silly,” he said. “But it’s done all across Pennsylvania and the country.”

It should be done, even if it slows traffic “a bit when someone presses the button – and maybe when someone doesn’t,” Slusser said. “Just because you’re not in a car doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to cross.”

If PennDOT isn’t going to “follow its own study, they need to tell us,” he said. “So we can stop following it, too.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.