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New Boulevard crossings to change traffic

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Pedestrians who have had to play "Frogger" to cross Kanawha Boulevard in the East End will soon get a break, as part of a massive state traffic signal project throughout downtown Charleston.

Contractors began work last week on what a spokesman called the largest signal upgrade project in state history -- 59 intersections, from Ruffner Avenue west to Clendenin Street.

"It's the largest one we've ever done," Walker said. "We normally replace around 100 signals every year. We're replacing 59 here in one fell swoop. Each one costs an average of $120,000 to $200,000."

The DOH has replaced traffic signals with energy-efficient LED lights elsewhere in Charleston, notably along Greenbrier Street and Pennsylvania Avenue near Interstate 64.

Now DOH is tackling downtown, in a project that took years to plan. Allen Copley, head of the city's Traffic Engineering Department, said in 2010 he'd been working with the DOH for several years.

One contentious issue was what to do along Kanawha Boulevard, where eastbound drivers have been able to travel nearly unimpeded in a continuous through lane from downtown to the Capitol.

That made it hard for folks -- especially young children and older people to cross to the increasingly popular riverfront walkways. Fitness-oriented City Council members took up the cause, and lobbied the state to add signaled crosswalks.

At the state's request, council members passed a resolution in December 2011 asking the state to install five signaled crossings. Mayor Danny Jones sent it on to the DOH, despite howls of protest from drivers.

City leaders got their way, Walker said.

"We'll establish five new crosswalks and, as such, we'll discontinue the continuous through lane," he said. "The first is at Clendenin Street, at the CASCI building."

Other new crosswalks will be added at McFarland Street, Leon Sullivan Way, Brooks Street and Morris Street.

In addition, contractors will upgrade the signals at Boulevard crossings at Court, Laidley, Summers and Capitol streets, he said. Besides the normal alternating signals, pedestrians will be able push a button to stop traffic at all the upgraded locations.

The crossing buttons will meet Americans with Disabilities Act Standards, with Braille dots and chirping signals to help sight-impaired people. "At Greenbrier and Washington you have that," Walker said.

And some intersections will have electronic message boards that count down the crossing time, second by second, he said. Such improvements are common in other cities.

The project involves essentially every traffic signal downtown, from Morris Street to Clendenin Street, the Boulevard to Washington Street, plus a few intersections north of Washington and the light at the south end of the South Side Bridge.

"In addition to traffic signals there are lighted road signs. We used them at Greenbrier Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. You'll see larger, illuminated signs. The letters are larger," Walker said. These, too, meet updated federal standards.

New poles, too, as needed or requested. "In some cases we're replacing the poles at the city's request. They have a stake in this, a half million dollars." Those poles might complement streetscape improvements, Walker said, or be tinted a special color.

Bayliss & Ramey, the contractors, have until December 2014 to finish the work, project manager Rich Jacobs said.

"We hope the public will be patient with us, because there will be some delays," Jacobs said.

Councilwoman Mary Jean Davis, who has been fighting for Boulevard crosswalks for about 10 years, said she was excited to hear it's finally happening.

"The idea that [the work] is started is a miracle in itself," Davis said. There were six organizations that wrote letters of support for it. It's been a long time coming.

"I know people in the East End will appreciate that they can cross with their bike, or their kids, and push a button. It's been an issue for them. Now if we can just get the curb cuts to line up with the crosswalks."

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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