Where do we draw the line?

St. John’s city council has voted to paint a new crosswalk in Airport Heights where a child was struck and killed by a vehicle last year. This goes against recommendations of the city’s engineering department that traffic levels there are below minimum standard requirements. Is this setting a precedent for similar requests?

By Sarah Smellie

“It was the most difficult decision I’ve had to make since I joined the council seven years ago,” says Ward 1 Councilor Art Puddister.

He’s talking about the decision made by the city last Tuesday to install a crosswalk at the intersection of Gairlock and Kincaid Street in Airport Heights.

Last September six year old Zachary Strong was hit and killed there by a dumptruck while riding his bike home from the adjacent playground. Since then, a group created by his parents and neighbours, called Citizens for Safe Neighbourhoods, have been trying to get the city to install a crosswalk there. Andy Wells and the council of the time had denied their requests.

The problem was that the traffic and pedestrian volumes at the area fall way (way) below the required minimum, as established by the Transportation Association of Canada, to warrant a crosswalk. According to the rulebooks, this was an open and shut case.

A delegation of people from the Waterford Bridge Road area who have been fighting unsuccessfully for two years for better traffic control on their street have been told the same thing. Waterford Bridge Road is designated a “minor arterial road,” so the TAC minimums are higher and the traffic volumes just don’t meet them. Nonetheless, they feel that their street is terribly unsafe and want the rules overlooked. Ward 3 Councilor Keith Coombs supports them, but no one else has budged.

But following this vote, it may not be as easy for the city to thump the rulebook anymore.

Ward 4 Councilor Debbie Hanlon went to bat for the CSN, asking councilors to set aside the numbers and look at the human side of the issue.

“It might bring closure and let some people sleep at night,” she said. “One of the reasons people live here [in St. John’s] is that we have this human touch.”

The motion to establish the crosswalk passed with a vote of six to two. Ward 2 Councilor Frank Galgay voted “nay.”

“Why not approve every one of them?” he asked, referring to the flood of requests for crosswalks the city gets each year. He is very concerned that the vote is setting a precedent.

Art Puddister, “nay” vote number two, says he’s concerned that installing a crosswalk where it’s unwarranted may create a safety hazard. He’s referring to a memo sent last week from the city’s transportation engineer Robin King to the city solicitor in which King states that while installing the crosswalk presents no liability for the city, whether or not the crosswalk compromises the safety of its users “is somewhat of a controversial issue” and advises against it.

“It’s a political issue now,” said King, when I asked him about the decision.

Keith Coombs says that while the city has indeed set a precedent, it is important that they remain open to re-evaluating the rules if a specific case justifies it, but only within reason.

“It’s a very slippery slope when it comes to these types of things, we do have a system in place and you have to have standards,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to get into a situation whereby any group that wanted something just had to get a petition together.”

“We haven’t had the death of a child, thank God,” says Barbara Burnaby, spokesperson for the Waterford Bridge Road delegation. “But it seems like that’s what they’re waiting for.”

As of Monday, the Citizens For Safe Neighbourhoods is now lobbying the city to require the wheels of construction vehicles parked on an incline to be blocked and to lower speed limits in all construction sites.