GEORGE KENNEDY: City Council must improve Clark Lane for pedestrians

Thursday, October 10, 2013 | 6:15 p.m. CDT; updated 3:21 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 11, 2013

Here’s this week’s riddle: Why did the elderly journalist cross the road?

And here’s a hint: The road in question was Clark Lane.

I drove out to the northeast quadrant of the city after Monday night’s City Council meeting left me even more confused than usual. Residents who have for years lobbied for safety improvements along the road angrily rejected the one proposed. Council members who wanted immediate action were frustrated by predictions of a 3-year approval process.

After the meeting ended, a furious Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala confronted the equally outraged Grassroots Organizing spokeswoman Mary Hussmann. Nose to nose, she asked, “Why did you lie to me?” He said he was “incredulous that you just didn’t say thank you and leave it at that.”

Both of them, of course, want the same thing.

The problem is really pretty simple. From Clark Lane’s intersection with Old 63 past a strip of fast food purveyors, there are sidewalks on both sides. A mile or so farther east, begins another pair of attractive sidewalks that run alongside an upscale golf-and-apartment development. But in between, there’s just a high-speed road with a narrow footpath beaten into the grass next to the pavement on both sides.

I not only crossed the road, at my best imitation of a dead run, but walked the footpath on both sides. They were short walks because it was absolutely terrifying to face those cars, all of which appeared to be exceeding the 45 mph speed limit and all of them less than three feet away. In some stretches, you can’t move away from the traffic without slipping into the side ditch.

That’s the problem. The solution, as is so often the case, seems not to be so simple.

Discussion began at nearly 10 p.m., at the end of a three-hour, shorter-than-usual meeting.

Public Works Director John Glascock presented the city staff’s proposal. Widen the asphalt pavement by six feet on each side, narrow each driving lane from 12 to 11 feet and mark the extensions as pedestrian and bike ways. That can be done next year at a cost of about $400,000, he said. The money is there.

At the same time, begin negotiations with the state, which controls the road, and the feds, who may have the money, on plans for the desired sidewalks. Experience shows, he said, that the process will take at least three years. The cost, he estimated, will be about double the first phase.

Ms. Hussmann and other advocates, after first being denied the chance to speak,  termed that “unacceptable.” The combination of narrower lanes and adjacent walkways would actually be more dangerous than the current situation, she argued. What the residents want, she and others insisted, is a sidewalk like the one the city required in front of the Casey’s convenience store that sits across the road from the entrance to the main residential development on that stretch of Clark, the Pine Grove immobile home park. That walk is maybe 100 feet long and leads nowhere, but it looks nice.

Troy Balthazor, representing the Mid-Missouri Advocacy Coalition, hurriedly read a prepared statement objecting to the city proposal. “Such a solution would not be proposed downtown, and it would not be proposed in more ‘affluent’ areas of the city,” he said.

Councilman Skala responded that the real choice is between the pavement extension for three years and doing nothing until the full plan can be negotiated and built.

Mayor Bob McDavid asked John Glascock about the extension. “Is it safe?”

“It’s better than walking in the lane,” was the reply.

The council voted 6-1 to instruct the staff to put the proposal into form for the council to consider again. Only Fourth Ward representative Ian Thomas dissented. He told a Tribune reporter he was skeptical of the timeline for real sidewalks. Afterward, I asked Mr. Skala why we’re having this conversation now, when the problem has existed for years.

He has been pushing for sidewalks since at least 2007, during his previous council stint, he said; but there was no other support and no money. At last, there’s both the will and the means. He credited Battle High School, recently opened another couple of miles to the east, for the change of heart. The new school has already brought more traffic and will certainly bring more development.

On Tuesday, I talked with Ms. Hussmann again. I asked which would she rather have — the pavement extension in 2014 or nothing for another three years?

She repeated her argument against the extension and said she’s skeptical about the time frame. She concluded, “I just don’t know.”

I said I don’t either, but I couldn’t resist the suspicion that if the apartment complex were situated where the trailer park is, there would already be sidewalks.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.

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