By JOY BROWN
Findlay City Council is expected to vote tonight on seeking a grant that could pay for traffic and safety improvements in the downtown.
The proposed improvements, scaled back from earlier ideas, could include “bump-outs” of sidewalks at downtown intersections, green medians, mid-block crosswalks, and perhaps other elements.
Officials say the proposals are driven by two dangerous intersections, and by speeding through the pedestrian-busy business area.
Increased law enforcement alone is not the solution, city officials say.
“I don’t think we should fault the Police Department for people who are breaking the speed limit,” said city Service-Safety Director Paul Schmelzer. “That blame would be inappropriate.”
The Ohio Department of Transportation has cited the Main Street intersections with Main Cross and Sandusky streets as the two most dangerous in its District 1, which includes eight counties.
At the two crossings, accidents are taking place “with careless drivers to blame, not necessarily speed-related activity,” said Mayor Lydia Mihalik.
“For instance, there are many failure-to-yield accidents. I personally have known of several individuals who have been victims of careless drivers in those crosswalks,” she said.
Mihalik said some crashes are happening for reasons that even the most vigilant law enforcement practices couldn’t stop.
City and planning officials blame the downtown’s design for most of the traffic and safety problems. Main Street has more lanes than needed, and crosswalks are too long, they argue.
“Blaming the Police Department for this would be similar to blaming the Police Department for heroin overdoses in the city as well,” Mihalik said. “Just because it happens does not constitute fault on behalf of the PD.”
Mihalik conceded the size of the police force does limit how many officers can be devoted to traffic enforcement while ensuring overall community safety.
“This is a perfect illustration of when Chief (Greg) Horne says we are a more reactive than proactive police department, and yes, much of that is because of the decrease in force,” Mihalik said.
Findlay had 56 police officers in December 2012, the fewest since 1985. It now has 57, according to Schmelzer.
Thanks to the improved economy, the city plans to hire three more, and hopes to hire an additional three by the end of the year, to bring the total to 63, he said.
The opinions of police and firefighters have not been expressed during public presentations and discussions about downtown plans, and Horne did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Planners and city officials have repeatedly used accident data to emphasize the need for changes.
Downtown Findlay had the highest number of accidents involving pedestrians, 12, from 2007 through 2011 in ODOT District 1, according to Brad Strader, planning division manager for LSL Planning of Royal Oak, Mich., a firm hired by the Findlay-Hancock County Alliance.
Statewide, though, Findlay ranked 61st during that time. The worst corridor was in Franklin County, with 41 vehicle/pedestrian accidents, said Eric Pfenning, roadway services engineer for District 1.
For accidents of all types, the Main Street intersections at Sandusky and Main Cross streets numbered the highest in District 1 between 2009 and 2012, plan proponents reported.
The planners didn’t provide data on speeding citations in Findlay, although they argue that speed is an issue.
Main Street’s speed limit downtown is 25 mph, but drivers frequently go faster, which makes walking downtown particularly dangerous, said economic development representatives and government officials.
Strader compared it to a highway.
“…It’s pretty intimidating the way people are … driving … especially in the evening when you are out there for dining,” he said.
The blame is placed on Main Street’s capacity.
Only three lanes are needed to accommodate the daily traffic, Strader said. With its five lanes, Main Street can handle nearly three times more vehicles, up to about 40,000 vehicles per day, therefore making it easier to drive faster, he said.
Crosswalks are also long, officials say.
Mihalik and Schmelzer said they were aware of some of the downtown traffic statistics before the Alliance hired people to compile them for a downtown traffic plan, but mostly anecdotally. They are also keeping in mind the near-accidents, and collisions that weren’t reported.
Schmelzer said Main Street’s safety issues are something that administrators are “discussing actively” with police.
Fire and ambulance personnel said they also have provided input on the downtown proposals, and are continuing to work with the administration and the Alliance on possible traffic changes that won’t hurt their response times and maneuvering on Main Street.
Fire Chief Tom Lonyo said he has had multiple conversations with Schmelzer, who met for about three hours with the on-duty crew at Fire Station 1 on March 7 to discuss concerns and ideas.
The first traffic proposal, which suggested eliminating two of the four traffic lanes on Main Street to make room for reverse-angle parking, was questioned at various public meetings, including at a city Emergency Medical Service Committee meeting.
“The Fire Department’s main issue with the first concept of the downtown area was keeping at least three lanes of traffic flowing unrestricted or without medians,” said Lonyo.
“Bottlenecking traffic with only one lane in each direction would have caused disruptions in response from north to south. So, from the EMS Committee and Fire Department point of view, we wanted to maintain at least three lanes of traffic,” Lonyo said.
The Fire Department “also raised the concern of loading ambulances on the single lane of Main Street with medians and blocking traffic completely,” he said.
“Reverse-angle parking would have had a minimal effect on the department as long as we utilized the … devices which keep the traffic light green and traffic flowing, in addition to removing the medians,” said Lonyo.
The medians, as initially presented, also might have restricted turning by emergency vehicles, and street space where fire trucks may need to take a “defensive position,” as was necessary during the 2012 Argyle apartment building fire, Lonyo said.
Rob Martin, Hanco Ambulance chief, said his employees “will work collectively with representatives from the Fire Department, Police Department and the Safety-Service Director Paul Schmelzer to ensure all safety aspects of the proposals are considered.”
“At this point, the downtown improvement project is merely in the concept stage,” Martin said. “There have already been two proposals presented to the community and there may be more to follow. We are confident that there will be opportunities to address the needs of emergency personnel prior to finalization.”
At tonight’s meeting, City Council is expected to vote on legislation that would authorize the administration to apply for a grant that would pay for up to 80 percent of the project construction, which may also include adding a bicycle lane on Cory Street.
The application merely requires municipalities to present basic proposals that focus on “alternative” traffic ideas that will fit into one of five grant categories.
If funding is awarded, the state will help the city develop a final plan based on engineering modeling and more public input. More alterations would be likely if that stage is reached, organizers said.