WEIRTON - Though the new consolidated elementary school at Preston and Pennsylvania Avenue is more than a year away from opening, Weirton officials already are worried that a traffic signal isn't part of the plans.
According to city officials, district highway officials have said the traffic count in that area doesn't justify a signal at this time and instead suggested the city assign a police officer to the intersection at peak times - something they're loathe to do because the new school is near the crest of a hill, affording drivers very little time to brake.
Eleven years ago crossing guard Mindy Cassella was struck by a sport utility vehicle and killed while trying to stop traffic for a school bus turning onto Pennsylvania Avenue. Cassella was wearing her safety vest and holding a stop sign at the time. Her family subsequently sued the city and state, claiming the intersection was unsafe.
Weirton officials are concerned that, to date, there are no plans for a stop light at the entrance to the new elementary school being built along Pennsylvania Avenue. -- Linda Harris
"This is going to be the single largest elementary school in the state and we're not going to have any type of traffic control," Ward 3 Councilman Fred Marsh said during Thursday's Finance Committee meeting. "I've made my position very clear - I'm not putting an officer out there (so we can) put another name on the wall."
Marsh pointed out the new school will have 950 students, with 15 or more school buses and a significant number of teachers, support personnel and parents trying to get in and out of the school on a daily basis.
"Mindy was killed in a similar situation, the driver was coming over a hill," City Manager Valerie Means said. "There wasn't a good line of site where she was hit. This is (the same thing). It's at the peak of a hill, one way in and one way out."
Access to the new school "is in a very dangerous (place), especially when the sun is shining," she said. "It's too dangerous there."
Fire Chief Jerry Shumate, who's lived on Colliers Way all his life, said drivers also struggle to see in the morning hours, when the sun shines directly into the eyes of eastbound drivers. "Every morning the sun is in your eyes if you're going eastbound; you can't see a thing," he said.
From December to February, "it's like you're in heaven because all you can see is white," added Marsh, who complained that thousands of dollars are spent on projects throughout the state for which there is little oversight, such as $100,000 for limestone for the Panhandle Trail, or thousands here and there in state funding to assist fraternal organizations and civic groups with special projects "yet we're fighting for traffic lights for a school."
"For safety, I feel there needs to be a stop light, even if it doesn't run 24 hours a day," Ward 5 Councilman George Gaughenbaugh said.
Mayor George Kondik said a traffic signal is "a more effective solution" than assigning an officer to stand in the street to direct traffic.
"Their rationale that there's not a high enough traffic count is beyond comprehension," Kondik said. "The number of parents, teachers and students who will be going in and out every day needs to be considered. We, the city, will do all that is necessary to make sure that the proper signaling device is in place. We're very concerned with the safety of the children."
District 6 Acting Engineer Dan Sikora could not be reached for comment.
But Marsh called it a "political quagmire" and said people are "going to want to know why the city didn't put a light there."
Marsh, meanwhile, also called for stricter oversight of grants for which the city acts as pass through, saying those organizations should be required to show proof that the funds are being used for the purpose for which they were intended. He cited as an example a 2012 post-legislative audit that identified more than $24,000 in state funds that a group of ex-volunteer firefighters spent after their squad was decertified in 2007.
"I'm not bashing the organizations that took time to (apply for) the grants," he said. "But at the same time, especially when they're running through our books, it makes us responsible and if something happens, it comes back to us."
Means said they could put a more stringent policy in place to require groups asking the city to vouch for them on grant applications to appear in person to answer questions and potential concerns.
(Harris can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)