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Hillsboro City Council hears 2nd reading of ODOT resolution for pedestrian safety project; area business owners speak out

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Pictured (l-r) are Hillsboro City Council members Adam Wilkin and Mary Stanforth; Hillsboro Police Chief Eric Daniels; and council members Jason Brown, Dan Baucher, Don Storer and Jo Sanborn. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
By
Caitlin Forsha, The Highland County Press

In their second meeting in a week, Hillsboro City Council members continued ongoing discussions for a proposed pedestrian safety project for the uptown district. Council heard the second reading of an Ohio Department of Transportation resolution for the project and comments from uptown business representatives during a special meeting Thursday, March 21.

As previously reported (see: https://highlandcountypress.com/news/uptown-pedestrian-safety-project-r…), the first reading of the resolution was presented during council’s Thursday, March 14 meeting. The resolution was introduced as an emergency, but a motion to suspend the three-reading rule failed to meet the required three-fourths majority after city law director Randalyn Worley strongly encouraged individuals with an interest in an uptown business to abstain from voting.

According to the legislation, this is a “project agreement” from ODOT for the “pedestrian safety improvement project in the City of Hillsboro on [U.S.] Routes 50 and 62.” 

The city was awarded $336,000 through ODOT in May 2022 for the project, which includes “federal and local” funding, according to the Department of Transportation.

According to a press release from the Ohio Department of Transportation, “The crosswalks at the Main Street and High Street intersection will be replaced with new high-visibility crosswalks including new pavement markings, center median refuge islands and solar-powered pedestrian-activated beacons.

“The project will remove 15 parking spaces. East Main Street will lose four parking spots, South High Street will lose five parking spots and West Main Street will lose six parking spots.”    

During council’s August 2023 meeting, they heard backlash from property owners concerned about the projected loss of parking spots in the uptown district, as that meeting was held during ODOT’s public comment period for the project. That backlash continued at the March 21 meeting.

Some council members had also expressed concerns with the project at their March 14 meeting, and council president Tom Eichinger said March 21 that city administration emailed a document “that tried to outline better the details around this” proposal. (Hillsboro Mayor Justin Harsha ended up reading the document later in the meeting March 21.) Eichinger asked council for feedback.

Council member Jason Brown — who on March 14 said he thought the proposed islands could be “a safety issue” — said had “the same questions.” He asked Hillsboro Police Chief Eric Daniels for his opinion on the project and its potential impact on traffic.

“I'm fully in support of it because it's for the safety of pedestrian traffic,” Daniels said. “We all know the hazards of trying to cross Main Street and High Street at any given time. You kind of hope for the best on getting across, and I think it's more of a safety concern for pedestrian traffic. 

“If you want to grow the DORA [Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area] and increase foot traffic, it's going to become more crucial to have more safety crossing the streets. Any constriction of traffic is going to be a potential hazard, and I think the pedestrian traffic hazard greatly outweighs any restriction with the traffic flow.”

Brown asked if Daniels if the proposed islands are “necessary as opposed to just” installing flashing beacons at the crosswalks.

“Yes,” Daniels said. “It’s going to force people to slow down because the traffic is going to be a little bit narrower, which is going to increase the pedestrian traffic safety.”

An uptown business/property owner, Heather Hughes, asked if council would take public comments — as there were several other business representatives present — and Eichinger indicated they could. Hughes referred to a similar recent ODOT pedestrian project in the Village of Leesburg, where she said Leesburg “lost no parking” as a result, and asked “the difference to that.” She also asked why the city didn’t hold “a public hearing with ODOT to hear what our other choices were and options.”

Safety and service director Brianne Abbott said that she could not speak to Leesburg’s project, but the one in Hillsboro is “separate from parking.” As Abbott reported at the previous council meeting,  “There will be loss of parking spots regardless of the project. Our current parking situation is out of compliance with state law as far as setback requirements, so now that the city is aware that we are out of compliance, it will happen regardless if this project happens or not.”

As also noted at the August 2023 meeting, Abbott cited Ohio Revised Code 4511.68, which, in part, prohibits parking “on a crosswalk; within 20 feet of a crosswalk at an intersection; [and] within 30 feet of, and upon the approach to, any flashing beacon, stop sign, or traffic control device.”

“We have to be in compliance with Ohio Revised Code,” Abbott said Thursday. “We’re not above the law.” 

City auditor Dawson Barreras also pointed out that different grants come with various guidelines as well. After Hughes interrupted them multiple times regarding the Leesburg project, Eichinger said, “Let’s not talk over each other, please.”

Next, uptown property owner Steve Wilkin asked questions regarding “the setbacks of the parking spots” and the pedestrian islands and potential safety hazards to vehicles. He asked if the project had “been thought through” and questioned whether ODOT was qualified.

“I get the feeling that we look at ODOT, like they're this shining city on the hill, with infinite wisdom, coming down and giving us guidance,” Wilkin said. “I think, here in Hillsboro, we have a better idea of how to solve these problems.”

Wilkin also referred to the reasoning for the project, as Abbott said that the city sought funding for this project after hearing “several complaints” from individuals at uptown businesses and others visiting uptown regarding “actual hits in the crosswalk or near misses.”

“There's so much traffic just flying through town that yeah, no doubt somebody’d get run over,” Wilkin said. ‘I don't know that hopping on an island like, ‘well, I'm on safe base here, I'm not going to get hit’ — that seems a little naive to think that you have this safe spot that you can jump on.”

Wilkin also questioned the “big urgency” behind the project.

“What's the big rush?” He asked. “Why can't we look at other locations, figure it out ourselves, rather than let ODOT, that doesn't really understand the traffic flow and so forth.”

(Note: The project was awarded in May 2022, and construction is scheduled to begin in summer 2025.)

Wilkin concluded his approximately six-minute address to council by saying, “I keep hearing, ‘well, we’ve got to follow the law. We’ve got to follow the law. Apparently, yeah, I get that. But sometimes the law isn't one size fits all. There's got to be some judgment exercised about it. That's my issue, and I hope you guys really know what you're doing.”

Eichinger, and then Harsha, responded to Wilkin’s comments. Regarding Wilkin’s argument that Hillsboro should “solve” their own “problems,” Eichinger told him, “We do not have the engineering expertise on the city's payroll to solve these problems. 

“ODOT does have that expertise, and there are also safety committees that review what they put together, not here, but at the state level,” Eichinger said. “From the point of view of us trying to solve our own problems, while that's nice, we need to go to the experts, and the experts are not us. We need to be able to negotiate with them about what will work and what won't work, which happened. 

“The plan that has been put together has been proven to be effective in other locations in the state. So, I hear what you’re saying, but it’s not that simple.”

Wilkin responded that the city has not had “transparency on these plans.”

“These plans are not normally published for the citizens to see, but anybody can come to the city building and ask to see that stuff, because it's all public record,” Eichinger said.

“If it's public record, couldn't it be put on a website so that everybody has access to it?” Wilkin asked.

“My guess is it would be one or two people, and you’d be one of them, that would look at it,” Eichinger said.

(Editor’s note: ODOT has published renderings of the project, which have been available online for months, at https://www.transportation.ohio.gov/projects/projects/117314.) 

At that point, Harsha interjected and asked to read from the three-page document sent to council after their previous meeting, “just to give you a whole backstory of how we got to this point.” The mayor clarified that the project involves the “mid-range crosswalks” (not the main intersection of U.S. 62 and 50). He explained that they looked into four “different scenarios” that pedestrians typically face when crossing the mid-range crosswalks in the uptown district:

• Pedestrian trying to cross mid-range crosswalks without high visibility lines and no way to notify drivers they are about to cross;

• Pedestrian crosses to centerline, but oncoming traffic doesn’t see the pedestrian;

• Pedestrian crosses to centerline, but because of the length and placement of turn lanes, car jets over to turn lane and does not see pedestrian; and

• Pedestrian attempts to cross crosswalk and car exits turning left out of alley, which is lined up with existing crosswalks.

“The current state of the mid-range crosswalks and concerns with pedestrians are: lines are faded, they are not ADA-accessible, lack of notification to drivers when crossing, turn lanes are extended too far, turning left in and out of alleys and parking patterns too close to crosswalks causing visibility issues,” Harsha said. “Past countermeasures were the installation of in-street pedestrian signs/delineators that were damaged within one month, and every time they were put back up, they were immediately damaged, so that was something that was tried. These outdated measures did not provide pedestrians the safety that they need nor meet ADA compliance.”

When ODOT came out with their pedestrian safety grant application, Harsha said they “promoted” designing projects implementing “proven countermeasures.” 

“Applications that were submitted were coordinated with the District Safety Review Team and a presentation was given for a final signoff on the project before ODOT District 9 submitted the project to the state on our behalf,” the mayor said. “ODOT staff from districts and Central Offices reviewed all Systemic Safety Applications, and any questions were forwarded to the primary contact on the application and responses were quickly returned.”

Harsha shared the following details on each of those “countermeasures” included in Hillsboro’s project:

• High-visibility crosswalks [that] use patterns that are visible to both the driver and pedestrian from farther away compared to traditional transverse line crosswalks. The location of the crosswalk and high-visibility lines doesn’t remove the risk of the extended turning lanes, and prevention of cars jetting into turn lanes.

• Refuge islands will allow pedestrians to cross one lane of traffic at a time and also prevent cars from jetting over into the turn lanes, which currently extend past the crosswalks, giving drivers the opportunity to enter into a lane that is 253 feet away from the light. It also allows handicapped pedestrians a place to rest before making the next stage of the crossing (if needed). Pedestrian refuge islands can reduce pedestrian crashes by 32 percent. Refuge islands are highly desirable for mid-block pedestrian crossings on roads with four or more travel lanes or where annual average daily traffic (AADT) is 9,000 or higher. In this case, all four mid-range crosswalks have an AADT over 10,000.

• Solar pedestrian signage. Push button flashing beacons will allow pedestrians to notify drivers when they are ready to cross. High-visibility flashing signs will be activated upon button and will be double-sided. Solar powered was the only option in this case due to inability to run electric lights in the current mid-range crosswalk locations.

After giving the overview of the pedestrian project itself, Harsha then addressed the concerns over parking.

“Removal of 15 parking stalls has nothing to do with implementing upgrades to our crosswalks,” Harsha said. “Research of our current crosswalk scenario lead us to ORC portion that the city is not in compliance with. 

“Yes, we are losing parking stalls, but more importantly, these Revised Codes of Ohio are there for a reason. It is another countermeasure that promotes pedestrian safety: parking stalls have to be so many feet away from crosswalks, lights, stop signs, etc.”

Harsha’s document to council also addressed some of the common complaints about the project and the city’s responses. 

• The loss of 15 parking stalls will prevent people from shopping uptown. Harsha pointed out that “people will walk from a parking space” at a larger store. "We understand the fear, but people will walk to shop,” he said. “We have 180 parking stalls uptown and a combined 45 stalls in two public parking lots that are rarely filled up.”

• People “don’t want the mid-range crosswalks” and want pedestrians to instead cross at the main intersection. “Crosswalks are a feature in downtowns to give shoppers/pedestrians an area to cut across to shorten length of time walking,” Harsha said. “If we eliminate crosswalks, it will be detrimental to the retail stores. The accessibility is still needed – they just need upgraded to provide pedestrians a safer way to cross.”

(At this point, Hughes interrupted and argued that Harsha was “contradicting” himself. The mayor responded, “How about you let me finish? Thank you.”)

• People “don’t want the refuge islands.” Harsha explained that “the whole purpose of this grant is to mitigate pedestrian accidents,” and the islands are a crucial part. “By not installing refuge islands it gives motorists the capability to turn left out of an alley, turn left into an alley, and get into the turn lane prior to the crosswalk versus after the crosswalk,” he said. “We should not compromise safety over accessibility, and we should be taking advantage of any opportunity to make upgrades to our uptown for future growth.”

The mayor finished his presentation by discussing the reasons to “keep the mid-range crosswalks and implement upgrades.

"The Historic District is a major arterial and is the main intersection of six state routes,” Harsha said. “We have over 70 active businesses in the uptown, which means approximately a couple hundred employees that serve and walk in the uptown each day. The uptown has a continual pattern of growth. The Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area was implemented, which will draw crowds to local DORA events, Farmers Market, festivals, etc. The proposed amphitheater uptown will also have a huge impact on our growth, and being proactive with safety measures is and should always be the priority. 

“Parking problems and lack of parking can be addressed with studies and other tactics to improve the availability of parking, but never should be at the expense of promoting pedestrian safety upgrades. The city has applied for a parking study and has plans to work on upgrades with public parking signage. If the parking study grant is approved, the study will be reviewed with the professionals to determine best scenarios for the uptown in terms of parking.”

In response to Harsha’s presentation, Wilkin suggested that the city could look into high-visibility crosswalks without installing the islands, which he said could lead to damage to cars if drivers hit them or may cause accidents. He also said that he disagreed with Eichinger saying that “the experts are not us” in Hillsboro and that they “want to offload the thinking part of it to somebody else.

“I think there is expertise that can take a look at this picture and come up with a better idea,” Wilkin said. “It seems like we're losing a lot of parking spaces, and it kind of is counterproductive.”

Michael Flowers then addressed council, arguing that “eliminating parking spots is absolutely going to be detrimental to downtown” and that the city is exempt from the laws that they are citing and that the historic district “doesn’t have to be ADA-compliant.

“To say that it doesn't follow the Ohio Revised Code is garbage,” Flowers said. “You can make up their own way of how you want to run these crosswalks. I don't know why you’ve got to go to the extreme to fix something that's not broken. I don't know how many people have been hit in the crosswalk in the last 20 years, but I’m going to guess less than 10, if not less than that.”

He addressed the police chief, with Daniels responding, “How many people will it take to get struck before it becomes an issue?”

Flowers argued that the city is “creating our own problems” by allowing people to drink alcohol uptown and that the city is “going to turn downtown into a museum” by limiting parking.

“You have to take into consideration what it's going to do to the economy around you, trying to fix something that's not even broken,” Flowers said. “I mean, has anybody ever been killed in a crosswalk in Hillsboro? Is there a problem to fix?” 

Uptown business owner Rachelle Trefz also spoke about parking, saying customers “will not park and walk” to come to stores uptown.

“If someone can't get a spot within about four to six spaces of our business, it's a matter of them just going on and ordering online,” she said.

Flowers agreed, saying that he has seen similar issues in Wilmington. “To take the big safety islands and put them in the middle of it and eliminate all these parking spots is just ridiculous,” he said. “It's just going to the extreme to fix a small problem.”

Harsha responded again that the islands “have nothing to do with losing parking spaces at all. Period.

“It’s because of the 30-foot distance between the alleys,” Harsha said. “That is the whole reason that parking places are being lost is because the regulations state there has to be 30 feet from the alleys. That has nothing to do with the crosswalks.”

“You’re saying ‘regulations,’ you’re not saying ‘laws,’” Flowers said.

“So you’re saying if someone gets hit in our crosswalk right now that is out of regulation, that they would not be able to sue the city because we are not in compliance?” Harsha asked.

“You wouldn’t be because you’re in the historic district,” Flowers said.

After that final exchange, Eichinger asked council if they had anything to add, then called for a motion to adjourn. 

Publisher's note: A free press is critical to having well-informed voters and citizens. While some news organizations opt for paid websites or costly paywalls, The Highland County Press has maintained a free newspaper and website for the last 25 years for our community. If you would like to contribute to this service, it would be greatly appreciated. Donations may be made to: The Highland County Press, P.O. Box 849, Hillsboro, Ohio 45133. Please include "for website" on the memo line.
 

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