Lack of sidewalks force pedestrians to streets; school district readies bond dollars

By antonio sierra

East Oregonian

As the sun crept over the Blue Mountains, students came at Weston Middle School from all sides.

During the usual morning rush before school starts, students Thursday trekked down the steep decline of Wallace Street to access the school from its south side. Other kids hoofed it from the north through Broad Street, vying for space with cars and buses as they all made their way to the set of concrete stairs that lead to the main entrance.

The young pedestrians spend most of their walk to school in the street, not necessarily because they want to, but due to the fact that there isn’t another option.

A group of officials from the city of Weston, the Athena-Weston School District, and a consulting firm watched foot traffic patterns early Thursday morning in an effort to figure out a way to increase pedestrian safety at a school surrounded by few sidewalks.

Over a two-day period the group held a joint city council-school board meeting, a walking tour of the middle school and a series of open houses on the topic.

The events rose out of a transportation plan Weston adopted a few years ago. According to Nick Foster, a senior planner with transportation consultant Kittelson & Associates, Weston’s poor pedestrian access was one of the top issues raised by the community during the planning process. When Weston received a grant to focus on the middle school, the city rehired Kittelson.

The new set of plans comes as the school district carries out capital improvement projects associated with an $8 million bond. That bond has already spurred the school district to consider rearranging the school bus and car drop-off zones.

“We don’t want to slow down the bond,” said Jennifer Spurgeon, the mayor of Weston and the vice-chair of the Athena-Weston School Board. “That’s why this is rapid response.”

The city and school district will spend the next few months studying the issue before seeing what they can fix quickly and what would need to be taken care of later through additional dollars.

Weston fifth grade teacher Jackie Culham and middle school principal Ann Vescio pointed to Wallace Street as one of their main concerns. Despite the lack of sidewalks, the steeply graded road is heavily traveled by students looking to enter the cafeteria for breakfast service, a journey made more treacherous during the winter.

The educators said staff members know to drive slowly down the street, but Vescio said she would also like to see more crosswalks on both sides of the school. One of the existing crosswalks is obscured by a retaining wall, making it difficult for drivers to see students trying to cross the street. Spurgeon said these issues come with the territory of trying to modernize a historic school, that started its life as a teaching college.

In order to install sidewalks and crosswalks, city and school officials will have to contend with old right-of-ways and the steep terrain of the surrounding area.

“It’s not an ideal situation in this hilly area that we live in,” he said.

Foster said Kittelson will return to Weston in the spring with its recommendations.

Weston is like many small towns in Eastern Oregon where sidewalks tend to peter out once the downtown area gives way to residential neighborhoods.

Echo School District Superintendent Raymon Smith said the city has done a good job of surrounding Echo School with sidewalks. The school’s pedestrian issues are focused at its student parking lot across from its Rieth Road entrance.

Without a crosswalk, Smith said most students elect to jaywalk, a problem that’s exacerbated further when parents drop off their kids in the middle of the street in front of the entrance. Smith said he is talking with the city and Umatilla County about installing a crosswalk at the entrance.

Although there are not many sidewalks beyond Highway 395 in Pilot Rock, Superintendent Steve Steniak said there aren’t many student pedestrian problems in the city because not many students walk to school. Pilot Rock school buses will ferry children to school from as close as a half mile away.

As a result, Steniak said, most young Pilot Rockers come by bus or car.

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Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.

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