Sitka Girl Scouts advocate for safer intersection

Girl Scouts in Sitka are doing more than selling cookies this year. One local troop is concerned about the safety of a heavily-used crosswalk.  The scouts hope to persuade the Alaska Department of Transportation that the intersection is more hazardous than the state thinks it is.

Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies. (Photo courtest of Wikipedia Commons)
Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

Standing outside the McDonald’s on Halibut Point Road, it’s easy to see the street is busy for any city, especially Sitka.

Cars and semi-trucks whiz by on the island’s main thoroughfare, which is near several apartment buildings, neighborhoods and three schools.

An accident here last year sent teenager Cody Bergman to Harborview Hospital in Seattle, after he was hit by a pickup truck while riding his bike across the street. Bergman had to be medevaced after the accident because of a serious head injury.

“It was a pretty traumatic, life-altering accident  and it was hard for me just as a neighbor and you know he’s been playing with my son since he’s been in  kindergarten,” said Retha Winger, the leader of Girl Scout Troop 4140. “It was difficult to watch I’d hope we can do something to prevent another family to have to go through that.”

During the past month, the troop of 10 teens gathered 55 comments about the intersection.

People mentioned several near-misses between children and vehicles. One said they saw a driver on a cell phone hit a little girl on a bike. Others mentioned how it is dark and visibility is poor turning off of Peterson.

Cathy Poulson, whose husband Steve Will died in 2008 after being hit on his bicycle at the intersection, also submitted her thoughts. Will was KCAW’s program director. Her husband probably came out of the street too quickly for the driver to see him, Poulson wrote, but still the sightline is nonexistent because of a slight hill on HPR and a power box near Peterson street.

The teen Girl Scouts even have their personal stories about the street crossing. Here’s 14-year-old Autumn Dismore and Winger:

“One time it was some of us, we were walking across the street over there and we had those flag things and a car across Peterson street almost hit us,” Dismore said.

“That’s a daily occurrence for a lot of people at this particular intersection,” said Winger.

The flag that she’s talking about is one of the neon orange pennants the DOT placed on either side of crosswalk last fall to increase visibility of pedestrians. Jeremy Woodrow is the DOT’s communications officer.

“We have been working with the community in Sitka to identify ways to improve visibility for pedestrians at that intersection,” Woodrow said. “That is one of those improvements we’ve come to an agreement and put in place.”

The Girl Scout troop is working with Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkin’s office to forward the testimonials they collected to the DOT. Winger says they are hoping to win approval to install solar-powered crosswalk signs, similar to ones the city is installing on Edgecumbe Drive.

“We’re going to do some fundraising and trying to get some local contributions, we know the state’s budgets are pretty tight but it’s a really important safety issue for Sitka,” said Winger.

Still, the comments are mainly anecdotal. The DOT relies on numbers to make changes, Woodrow says. From 2008-2012, the most recent data DOT has available, there were four reported accidents at the HPR-Peterson intersection.Three were bumper to bumper crashes and one was an angled wreck. None involved pedestrians, Woodrow says.

“When we make our decisions on roadway improvements or safety improvements these are data driven improvements and we make sure if we’re going to make a change there’s substantial backing of why we made that change,” Woodrow said.

He says the department is always trying to gather information on state roadways and looks forward to receiving the troop’s comments. Winger is optimistic, and believes her Girl Scout troop can make a difference for the community.

“We all want to be safe and we hope our children are looking both ways and doing the right thing but you know stuff happens it gets icy and dark and whatever we can do to make our kids safer getting to where they need to go,” said Winger.

According to DOT data, a little more than half of the state’s car crashes occur at intersections.