By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.ALLOTSEGO.com
In the wake of pedestrian April Johnson’s death, state Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, has invited state DOT Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez to Lettis Highway, where the 32 year old woman was struck by a car.
“I want her to tour the area with me and see it first hand,” Seward said. “It wasn’t built with pedestrians in mind, but we need to accommodate them.”
Allied with City Mayor Gary Herzig, the senator hopes to convince the state DOT to award the city and town of Oneonta an $8.7 million grant to implement long-sought safety improvements to the accident-riddled stretch.
Since 2015, there have been 114 accidents with property damage, 20 with injury to pedestrians or passengers, and five hit-and-runs, including a two-car collision on Saturday, Feb. 1, Police Chief Doug Brenner reports.
“It’s a difficult intersection at Main Street,” he said. “And people don’t always slow down coming off the highway, even though it’s marked as 30 miles per hour.”
But following the Dec. 30 accident, where a car driven by David Shafer of Otego struck April Johnson as she crossed the road 100 yards up from the crosswalk, Mayor Gary Herzig renewed his call for DOT funding to add sidewalks and better lighting along the highway.
“It’s sad that this tragic accident took place,” he said. “But it is our responsibility to correct that now, and it remains a top priority that we make the Lettis Highway safe for vehicles and pedestrians.”
Johnson died Jan. 11 at Albany Medical Center, where she had been hospitalized since the accident. She never regained consciousness.
Hers’ is not the first death on the highway. In October 2007, retired Hartwick College economics professor Jack Stuligross, husband of former Otsego County Rep. Kay Stuligross, was struck by a car and killed while riding his bike near the intersection of Southside and Lettis, in front of McDonald’s.
In August 2018, the city, in partnership with the Town of Oneonta, applied for an $8.7 million state DOT grant, with $3.2 million earmarked for the town to build sidewalks on Southside and the remaining balance to build a sidewalk on Lettis Highway, with pedestrian access at Neahwa Park and Pine Street, as well as a green median.
“This has been part of our strategic plan,” said Herzig. “Every day, we see people walking to work or to go shopping, and at night, there is no visibility. It’s not right, and there’s no reason it has to be this way.”
The state denied their application.
According to Herzig, funding is made available every other year, and he believes it will open again in the spring.
“Our intent is to apply again,” he said. “We are planning to meet with the folks from the state to talk about why we weren’t funded and to reiterate the importance of making this highway safe not just for vehicles, but also pedestrians.”
Herzig has also pledged more than $1 million in matching funds to assist the project. “We remain focused and optimistic that we have a strong case for the funding,” he said.
If awarded, it will not be the first time that a pedestrian death has lead to increased safety upgrades in the city. In 2016, the state DOT upgraded the lights and signage at the corner of Main and Chestnut, in the city, at Herzig’s request, after Daniel Heath, 75, was struck by a car that made a left-hand turn, and hit his head when he fell.