Tahlequah residents have long complained about the dearth of sidewalks, or that those in existence are in disrepair. They should be happy to know at least part of their wish is about to come true.
The Tahlequah City Council, during a Nov. 15 meeting, approved a resolution authorizing the mayor to enter an agreement with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to construct sidewalks along Downing Street. ODOT had told the city that funds had been set aside for the project.
The location in this case is important. Sidewalks will be installed on the north side of Downing, starting at Casey’s General Store and running to the intersection of the Bertha Parker Bypass, heading east. At that intersection, sidewalks will be installed on both sides of Downing to the west side of Bliss Avenue – and a key element will be handicap-accessible ramps, with pedestrian islands in the middle of the intersection.
Sidewalks are needed in many areas of the city, but this location is one of the most critical. That's where Jamie Stuck was struck and killed by a truck driver back in June 2019. Stuck was walking westbound on the south side of Downing after finishing her shift at Sonic Drive-In when she stepped in front of the vehicle. A sidewalk may or may not have averted this tragedy, since Stuck's family has sued the trucking company for negligence – and since pedestrians are generally considered to have the right-of-way. But if "walk" buttons and sidewalks had been present, this 29-year-old mother of two might still be alive.
Even the threat of costly citations hasn't been enough to slow traffic here, or elsewhere in the city. Many drivers have no problem blowing through red lights, and stepping on the gas to blast through the yellows. For a pedestrian, crossing here, or where the bypass intersects U.S. 62 by Reasor's and Walmart, is always a risk. But the correct infrastructure could offer at least some insurance against tragedy.
There is no real downside to this project. City Planning and Development Director Taylor Tannehill offered specifics during the meeting, and one noteworthy aspect is the fact that no new right-of-way will be required. Had that not been the case, it would have thrown a wrench into the works, because for some property owners, community safety, aesthetics and a cooperative spirit are way down the list of priorities. Skinning the government – the taxpayers – for a few feet of useless turf would be the goal.
Tannehill said the sidewalk project will cost $604,110; ODOT’s portion will be $450,000, and $154,110 will be the city’s. Predictably, a few selfish curmudgeons have already expressed displeasure with "their" tax money being used to build sidewalks that they, themselves, may never use. Setting aside the suspicion that such folks would be too lazy to forsake their vehicles for strolls throughout Tahlequah, it is incumbent upon them – and everyone else – to support work that would benefit the community as a whole.
Features like hiking and biking trails, nice parks, and even recreational outlets like seasonal ice-skating rinks are all important elements when people choose to relocate. They may be less important than good jobs and good public schools, but they are still repeatedly cited as things newcomers find attractive. Sidewalks are also among those features.
Tannehill pointed out the Street and Sidewalk Committee recommends use of those funds to make this project what ODOT designed it to be. It would be difficult to imagine a viable reason why city officials would decline.