ATHENS — After hearing concerns about the safety of the busy downtown square and especially North Jefferson Street, Mayor Ronnie Marks said he is ready to move forward with a traffic study.
“It’s something that needs to be looked at. We’ll have to come back with a proposal to the City Council,” Marks said. “We will bring that to the City Council and try to get everything updated. Hopefully, we’ll look and see what they recommend and maybe it’ll get us moving in the right direction.”
Marks said a careful evaluation of traffic patterns on the square is overdue.
“It hasn’t been updated for a long time and with the growth and the development to include outdoor dining and to include other issues we have, like the walkability around our downtown area, it absolutely needs to be updated,” Marks said.
Athens' courthouse square is bordered by Jefferson Street on the west, Market Street on the north, Marion Street on the east and Washington Street on the south.
The issue was introduced at a City Council meeting last week by the owner of a store on the square.
Derrick Young, who owns and runs UG White Mercantile on the corner of North Jefferson Street and Market Street West, proposed changes to the North Jefferson Street crossing, where he said cars frequently run red lights and place pedestrians at risk.
“The city and county have made numerous improvements … but I can assure you one thing that hasn’t changed, it’s getting worse: our traffic on Jefferson Street,” he said.
His main proposal was that the traffic light at Jefferson and Market streets be replaced with a stop sign to slow traffic.
“Awareness of the intersection and what’s going on with other traffic, vehicles, or people is increased when you stop," he said, noting that drivers on North Marion Street, which has a stop sign, routinely wave pedestrians across the street.
He said increases in pedestrian and vehicle traffic have made the Jefferson Street intersection a hazard.
“I suspect the crossing at Jefferson and Market has the most pedestrians of any crosswalk in the county,” Young said. “Basically, I’ve been nothing short of astonished at the frequency and speed at which the red light is run right in front of my store. ... (We) need to have the cars, just need to take steps to slow and stop traffic.”
He said one concern he has is that diners at sidewalk tables could be hit by a vehicle.
“I think with this we need a proactive solution. We need to do it before an incident happens that puts us in a reactive mode,” Young said.
While safety was Young's main concern, he said slowing down traffic would also improve the feel of downtown. He said pedestrians should have the right of way.
“We need to have at least one place in our county, and in this case, our downtown square, to be a place we can actually slow down," Young said. "Not just for safety, but also to give our citizens and visitors a sense of calm and enjoyment, while at the same time keeping it fully accessible to vehicles while pedestrians have the right of way, and (making) this obvious to them and our drivers.
"Downtown area is our community’s neighborhood. It’s the heart and soul of the whole county. That’s where we all have a connection to.”
Tere Richardson, executive director of Athens Main Street, said she also would like to see changes made to slow traffic.
“Our concern is that downtown be looked at as the destination, and not something streaking by in somebody’s side windows,” Richardson said. “People are more important than cars.
"If we’re going to have a walkable city, a place that people want to come and spend time, then these are going to need to be things that are addressed.”