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Park-Atherton Intersection Looms Large at Borough Council

by on October 20, 2015 6:00 AM
State College, PA

The State College Borough has not ignored the two recent fatal crashes at the intersection of Park Avenue and Atherton Street.

On the contrary, borough officials have already taken several steps to make the intersection safer and they’re waist deep in figuring out what the next steps will be.

The State College Borough Council heard a comprehensive update from police, public works, and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation on the state of State College’s newly infamous intersection at its Monday meeting.

Park-Atherton By the Numbers

State College Police Chief Tom King told council that the police department has stepped up its patrols of the Park-Atherton intersection, putting in 80 additional hours of enforcement since June. A total of 26 citations for red light violations came out of the additional patrols, he said.

The police department has also been analyzing traffic at the Park-Atherton intersection using a camera provided by PennDOT.

King said that, before students arrived in town for the fall semester at Penn State, the Park-Atherton intersection saw an average of 276 pedestrians and 176 bicyclists per day. An average of 26 pedestrians and about 12 bicyclists committed some kind of violation when crossing the street.

Before the start of the fall semester, there was also an average of five traffic signal violations per day, mostly committed heading southbound on Atherton Street. King said there was also an average of 12 violations for improperly turning at a red light. The police department is currently working on finalizing data examining how the return of Penn State students impacts these numbers.

Completed and Possible Improvements

State College Public Works Director Mark Whitfield told council that borough staff has already completed several improvements to the Park-Atherton intersection.

With the help of PennDOT, the borough painted guidelines for vehicles turning left onto Atherton Street from Park Avenue to cut down on cars turning left onto the wrong side of the road. Whitfield said the borough has also prohibited turning right on red lights regardless of the time of day and installed a countdown for crossing pedestrians.

Whitfield identified several suggestions for improvement as possibilities that require further consideration. He said it might be possible to increase pedestrian crossing times, making the pedestrian crossing phase part of every signal change, and making the existing ‘yield to pedestrians’ sign more prominent.

Whitfield said it might also be possible to make one lane at the intersection exclusively for left turns, lengthening the time that all lights are red during signal changes and installing signage that designates the intersection as a congested area.

Unlikely Suggestions

However, some suggestions from the community have turned out not to be feasible for the Park-Atherton intersection.

Dean Ball of PennDOT said it would impossible to install a roundabout or traffic circle at the intersection, which sees about 54,000 vehicles a day. Ball said this is more cars than a roundabout could effectively handle, and installing a roundabout would also eat into the surrounding properties.

Ball also said that a pedestrian bridge is also unlikely. A bridge would take up either privately owned property or land owned by Penn State, would only cross one of the two streets, and would likely not be used by many pedestrians if the bridge took significantly more time than crossing at street level.

Kevin Kline of PennDOT also said that reducing the speed limit along Atherton Street or installing an automatic red light enforcement system would also be unlikely. Speed was not a factor in recently crashes at the Park-Atherton intersection, and the intersection isn’t nearly as large as the intersections monitored by automatic enforcement systems in larger cities.

Whitfield said the next steps for the borough to take are to study pedestrian data, gather public input and develop a public education program on intersection safety. The borough is accepting suggestions about the intersection via email.

Whitfield hopes to have a more detailed proposal ready by March or April next year.

Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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