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HUNTINGTON — Concerns over the safety of those traveling the streets around Marshall University’s campus have been at the forefront of people’s minds after a student was killed by a vehicle while crossing 3rd Avenue earlier this month.

Students and professors said they feel uneasy when crossing the street at the university’s main Huntington campus. Marshall and City of Huntington officials said they have been trying to seek change for years, but to no avail.

Increasing pedestrian safety while barely affecting commute time for drivers is possible, says James Bryce, assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at Marshall and the assistant director of the Appalachian Transportation Institute. The solution is not technical, it’s political — once the decision is made to make 3rd Avenue pedestrian-friendly, several options are on the table, he said.

On Friday, Jimmy Wriston, the cabinet secretary and commissioner of Highways for the West Virginia Department of Transportation, said in a letter to Huntington Mayor Steve Williams that the Division of Highways will conduct a road safety assessment for the campus in spring.

But before change can be made, all sides must agree to discuss it.

Death and injury

Maribeth Cox died just after noon Nov. 4 when she was struck by an SUV while crossing the street at a crosswalk at 3rd Avenue and 18th Street by the Cam Henderson Center after exiting a Tri-State Transit Authority bus that had come to a stop at the intersection. Huntington police say Cox walked in front of the bus as the traffic light turned green, and she entered the path of oncoming traffic before she was struck.

Paul Davis, the general manager and CEO of TTA, said bus drivers see a lot of accidents over their careers, but it never gets easier. The driver of the bus Cox had been riding was a new hire and in training when she witnessed the accident. After the incident, she received therapy offered by TTA through St. Mary’s Medical Center.

Ken O’Connor, a professor of chemistry at the university, was struck by a vehicle Oct. 18 while crossing the road at the intersection of Hal Greer Boulevard and 3rd Avenue. He has since returned to the classroom.

Zack Ihnat and Harrison Randolph, engineering students at Marshall, said they spend a good portion of their time at the school’s transportation lab, which overlooks 3rd Avenue. They said it was devastating to hear of the pedestrian incidents.

Jaywalking is common around Marshall, but the two recent crashes occurred at crosswalks.

Bryce arrived at Marshall in 2018 from the District of Columbia, where he said he had a habit of walking. He said he has nearly been hit several times at the intersection of Hal Greer Boulevard and 3rd Avenue by vehicles turning onto Hal Greer.

“They really have no indication that they’re required to yield to pedestrians,” he said. “I can barely cross that road without having a panic attack. It’s sad that we have a legal way to cross, and yet it seems as though drivers are not encouraged at all to yield to pedestrians.”

While there are crosswalks at every block, more needs to be done, said Ihnat, who also serves as Mr. Marshall for the school — especially along 20th Street where no crosswalks connect Joan C. Edwards Stadium parking to campus. The students said they find the two pedestrian walkways on 3rd Avenue inconvenient and not as accessible as they would like.

People walking along 3rd Avenue last week had the same mindset — jaywalking is just a fact of life.

Concerns without change

University spokesperson Leah Payne said President Jerome Gilbert and others at Marshall have been concerned about pedestrian traffic patterns for years. The recent death is a “further impetus to seek safety options,” she said.

A 2012 Downtown Huntington Access Study and 2013 Marshall University Campus Master Plan identified vehicle-pedestrian conflicts as a major problem and recommended mitigation that has not been implemented

Bryce said he and his students have tried for years to get traffic incident data, but they keep getting the runaround.

Williams said city leaders had discussed the issue with the West Virginia Division of Highways before, without reaching conclusions. Williams sent a letter to Wriston on Nov. 8 requesting the traffic safety audit, with a special emphasis on the 3rd and 5th avenue corridors.

City spokesperson Bryan Chambers said the purpose of the audit would be to collect and evaluate data and use it to substantiate the recommendations. He said the mayor is hopeful the KYOVA Interstate Planning Commission, the Appalachian Transportation Institute, the city, the state Division of Highways, Marshall and other involved parties will be able to collaborate.

Williams’ letter was also sent to Rob Pennington and Scott Eplin, of the state Division of Highways Region 2; state Sen. Bob Plymale; Chris Chiles of the KYOVA Interstate Planning Commission; and Mike Shockley, chairman of the Huntington City Council.

Imagining change

There are lots of design changes on the table, Bryce said.

During his time at Marshall, some of Bryce’s senior classes have worked on transportation design and alternative designs for real-world situations near campus. He said they have taken their findings to university, state and federal authorities, but nothing has come from it.

They have all found it is a design issue, not a law enforcement issue; 3rd Avenue is an area with high “pedestrian conflict points” and high hazards. Bryce said the road is a driver’s dream with minimal obstacles and desire to reduce speed.

When asked to name a design change option, Bryce said one the students found is to turn 3rd Avenue into three lanes with a pedestrian island, adding curbs and diagonal parking and slightly reducing speed.

“If you simply add curbs, you’ve narrowed the lane slightly. You can see the significant effects on reducing driver speed,” Bryce said. “And that’s part of what the issue is right now. There’s no obstruction. There’s no reason for the driver to reduce speeds.”

The changes wouldn’t have a detrimental effect on the time it takes a person to travel 3rd Avenue; it would just give drivers more reason to be alert, Bryce said.

Ihnat said it was great that students came up with ideas to protect themselves, but they shouldn’t be the ones designing ways to keep themselves safe.

Davis said there are a lot of measures that can be taken, like more law enforcement presence or putting more instructional signs up for pedestrians and traffic. TTA tells its drivers to educate people as they get off the bus, such as telling them to wait until the bus clears so they have a clear line of sight across the road.

“I think that not one of these things is going to be the cure-all, but if we look at the overall picture — and it’s not in my purview to do that — but if I can influence people, then I will,” Davis said.

Chairs at the table

In the DOH letter sent as response to Williams, Wriston said he shares the mayor’s concern for safety on the roads at Marshall’s campus. The traffic engineer division was asked to begin the process of performing a road safety assessment to improve 3rd Avenue. The letter invited several Huntington officials to offer input as well.

Wriston said an independent expert — who assisted in a similar study in Morgantown — would most likely start once the spring semester is in session.

The Marshall Faculty Senate last week approved a resolution calling on the institution to pursue action. It was co-signed by the Student Government Association.

A committee will be formed to help guide the university’s interaction with federal, state and local authorities who have jurisdiction over the roads surrounding campus, Payne said.

“While there are no definitive answers as of yet, the university remains committed and vigilant about student and employee safety,” she said.

The resolution said, “The Faculty of Marshall University views pedestrian safety on and around Marshall University campus as paramount, and that taking no steps to improve pedestrian safety on the Huntington Campus is deprioritization of its faculty, staff and students.”

It asks for a pedestrian safety task force, a road safety audit and that the administration advocate for the funding and implementation of a review.

Randolph, who is part of the SGA, said he thinks the resolution’s final note tells the administration how seriously the students and faculty are taking the matter.

“We know the roads surrounding campus are not Marshall University’s assets,” he said. “However, they have a large voice within Huntington, and Huntington has a large voice within the DOH. All three of those bodies can really come together and create a change.”

During a listening session with students on campus earlier this month, Marshall President-elect Brad Smith responded to their concerns, saying he has already connected with Williams on the subject of safety.

Bryce said members of the Appalachian Transportation Institute also have talked with Williams, who seems receptive to their ideas. Bryce said it gives him hope, but he also hopes the public sustains their outrage to help students avoid incidents in the future.

“I’m going to maintain my anger until something’s actually done,” he said. “Then once our students are safer, I’ll calm down and smile again and not be angry about it.”

Reporters McKenna Horsley and Luke Creasy aided in this report.

Courtney Hessler is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch, covering police and courts. Follow her on Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

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