By George Mauzy
When two area residents were sent to the hospital last Saturday after their vehicles collided at Richland Avenue and Ohio 682, they joined a long list of travelers who have failed to navigate the intersection safely.
Athens' most dangerous intersection, located just south of the Ohio University campus, has been the site of more than 70 automobile collisions in the past four years. In 2003, the Ohio Department of Transportation ranked it 78th on state's high-crash list, although it no longer occupies a spot on that undesirable roll.
Earlier this week, Athens City Council took a major step to improve the situation. In a unanimous vote, council appropriated $425,000 to cover partial design and engineering services for a $6.2 million project to construct a roundabout at the intersection and make related improvements. The city expects to pay for the project with $4.5 million in state grants and $1.7 million in city funds.
"This is a pretty sizable project for the city, but there is a major safety problem here," said Athens Street Department Director Andy Stone, who is overseeing the project. "After researching a number of design options, the roundabout was declared the best option because it was safer, more efficient and less costly than alternative designs."
A roundabout is a circular intersection in which traffic flows around a center island. Because incoming traffic must yield or stop, more vehicles can simultaneously travel through the intersection than through a typical four-way intersection, but at lower speeds.
The plan also calls for improvements to the Richland Avenue Bridge, including the addition of a barrier-protected pedestrian and bike pathway, as well as construction of a tunnel that will route pedestrians and cyclists under Ohio 682. Stone said more than 80 percent of the public comments he has received about the project pertained to pedestrian and bike issues.
Because of the intersection's proximity to campus and the number of students and university employees who use it, Stone said he made sure the university was well-represented in project discussions and planning meetings. Among those he met with were representatives of Student Senate.
"It's great that this project is moving forward, and I am confident that the roundabout is a creative and innovative solution to a complex issue," said Ohio University Associate Vice President for Facilities Harry Wyatt. "I am appreciative that the city included the university in discussions from the start and has been a collaborative partner on traffic and safety issues."
Stone said the city had been considering changes to the Richland/Ohio 682 intersection since 2000, but an accident last summer that took the life of Ohio University graduate student Abhishek Singh solidified community support for the project and moved it to the forefront.
Singh, a doctoral candidate in physics, was walking on the Richland Avenue Bridge when he was hit and knocked into the Hocking River by a vehicle that ran a red light and collided with another vehicle at the intersection. Earlier this month, Athens resident April Hankinson was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to pay restitution to Singh's family after pleading guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide.
"Abhishek's friends in physics and elsewhere in the community had hoped his untimely death would result in some positive changes in safety at the intersection," said Langston Hughes Professor of English Amritjit Singh, who is not related to the late student. "I am pleased that the city has approved monies for engineering designs to improve safety at the intersection, and I hope the community will participate vigorously in debates about the final plans."
Department of Physics and Astronomy Chair Joseph Shields said he has followed the project closely and believes the roundabout could be a good solution.
"Ohio University has lots of students living in that area of town, and many of them don't drive, so it's a very good idea for the city to improve the overall safety in that area," Shields said. "If a roundabout forces people to slow down, I support it."
Columbus-based engineering firm Burgess & Niple has started the project's design work. Construction is scheduled to begin in spring 2010 and be completed that fall.