MORGANTOWN — According to Morgantown Monongalia Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Director Bill Austin, 13 percent of work commutes in the greater Morgantown area are made on foot.
“That’s a huge number. That’s about four times the number of pedestrian trips made in a typical urban area,” Austin told a small crowd that recently gathered in the Metropolitan Theatre to offer public input as a part of the MPO’s efforts to update its Regional Bike and Pedestrian Plan.
Normally, the MPO would handle updates to the bicycle and pedestrian portions internally, but that plan changed last February, when two WVU students were struck by vehicles in separate incidents over the span of a month.
The accidents resulted in the death of Leah Berhanu, 21, and left Sara Queen, 20, with serious injuries.
With a heightened focus on pedestrian issues, the MPO opted instead to expand the scope of the study, ultimately contracting with transportation planning and design firm Alta, of Cambridge, Ma., for $266,000. The firm will conduct a comprehensive, year-long study encompassing everything from trail and transit access and infrastructure challenges to policy changes and best practices from peer cities.
About 90 percent of the plan’s cost was covered by federal and state highway funds. The remaining 10 percent came by way of local match, split between Monongalia County, Morgantown, WVU and Westover.
Alta began gathering data in December.
Phil Goff is leading Alta’s efforts in Morgantown. He explained that community feedback can be provided at bikewalkmorgantown.com over the next several months.
“The community knows the territory here much more than we do and we want to hear from them,” Goff said. “We want to hear their ideas about roadways and intersections that are challenging for them, that offer barriers for them. We want to know the ideas they might have for improvements like new sidewalks, better intersections, roadway crossings, bike facilities, trail access points or even non-infrastructure issues like policy ideas.”
The MPO’s long-term plan is actually one of two parallel efforts currently under way.
Following the back-to-back accidents involving students, WVU put together its own group of local stakeholders, including local law enforcement, the MPO, Monongalia County, the City of Morgantown and the West Virginia Division of Highways DOH, among others, to look at ways to improve pedestrian safety.
After an initial flurry, momentum waned following former DOH District 4 Engineer Donny Williams’ retirement late last year, but WVU Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Rob Alsop recently told the Monongalia County Commission that the group is back to work.
“It’s really an opportunity to reinvigorate and make sure some of the short-term things we’ve had successes on continue and that those medium-to-long-term projects continue to be on the forefront of everybody’s mind,” Alsop said, explaining the university has already instituted measures including an expanded education component during new-student orientation.
The initiative resulted in more than 70 suggestions being broken into a list based on priority and expected anticipated completion time. The suggestions are aimed at addressing a set of critical issues including:
— Low visibility at pedestrian crossings
— Lack of effective traffic calming and other pedestrian-friendly facilities
— Concurrent traffic signal patterns which create conflict between vehicles and pedestrians
— Risky behavior by both pedestrians and drivers.
— Identification of a number of site-specific conflict areas
Matthew Cross, president of Morgantown’s Pedestrian Safety Board said he’s glad to see the focus on pedestrian safety, but noted the kind of change needed is as much about perspective as it is infrastructure.
“This is going to require a shift in public and administrative position. We need to embrace the idea that pedestrians and bicyclists are not subordinate to vehicle activity,” Cross said.