School Crossing Deerfield

Crossing guard Bob Schoby escorts Jaden and mom, Julie Gosnell, across U.S. Highway 75 before school at Deerfield Primary School in 2018.

When Chris Casey moved to Blair four years ago, he was concerned about the lack of blinking lights along U.S. Highway 75 signaling that there was a school in the area, so he began asking questions.

"I was told, it's the city, no, it's the state," he said. "I was kind of pushed back and forth."

From others, he'd hear, "You know how long it took us to get a light here at the school?"

Discouraged by what he called "a lot of excuses," Casey said he let the issue die.

"But, I probably shouldn't have," Casey said Tuesday as he spoke at the Blair City Council meeting about safety concerns along the city's highways in the aftermath of an accident at the intersection of 19th and Washington streets that killed 11-year-old Jaycoby Estrada.

Raymond Hayes, 56, of Lyons was driving southbound turning east toward downtown Blair from North 19th Street when his semi struck Estrada, who was northbound on his bicycle crossing Washington Street at approximately 8:15 a.m. Aug. 23.

As news of the Blair sixth-grader's death became public, people took to social media to voice their concerns and frustrations about the highway traffic.

While the accident remains under investigation, residents didn't shy away from pointing out problems with semi-trucks running red lights at that intersection and throughout the downtown area and demanding the city do something to make crossing the highways safer.

Council member Kevin Hall said he's received a lot of phone calls since Friday.

"I got a lot of suggestions from people on what they think the city should do," Hall said, asking, in response to one suggestion if it was possible for the city to repaint some of the major crosswalks as a visual reminder that there are crosswalks there and for cars to stay out of those areas.

Sympathizing with the situation, Public Works Director Al Schoemaker explained that, other than basic maintenance, the city has no jurisdiction when it comes to setting speed limits, putting up traffic signs and signage and even pavement markings because U.S. highways 75 and 30 are federal highways, thus falling under the jurisdiction of the Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT).

"They set all the speed limits, take care of all the signage, all of the signaling and lighting," he said. "They have very set rules on what they will and will not do."

This isn't the first time safety concerns have been addressed by parents of Deerfield Primary School students, Shoemaker said. He said he previously met with a group of moms who requested a traffic reduction.

"The DOT has done speed studies and said 'no' (to a reduction)," he said, noting the study concluded the speed in that area is "adequate and correct." The NDOT did allow the city to put up a speed limit sign in the area, Schoemaker said.

Schoemaker said the traffic lights by Deerfield flashed for years before they were made operational because they did not meet the NDOT's set warrants.

"The only thing that got them turned on was that the school district worked with the district engineer," he said.

In his 20 years with the city, Schoemaker said the city council has, on multiple occasions, approved resolutions that have been sent to NDOT requesting studies regarding the need for a traffic signals and speed. Earlier this year, the city requested a traffic study for the intersection of Industrial Park Drive and Highway 30, which determined a traffic signal is warranted, but it will be two years before it's installed. That request came after three accidents at the intersection.

More recently council member Chris Jensen requested that Schoemaker work with the NDOT to address speed and the volume of traffic along South Highway 30.

"The city council is on board, they have tried to help as much as anybody," Schoemaker told the Enterprise on Wednesday. "Unfortunately, their power is very limited in these situations. That's very unfortunate, but it is what it is and we just have to deal with it and work with it and work around it."

Schoemaker, however, encouraged residents to contact the NDOT District Office in Omaha to voice their concerns. He said phone calls from taxpayers can sometimes carry a little different weight, not totally, but it could help.

"They hear from me all the time," he said.

He also said residents can call the Federal Highway Administration Office in Lincoln.

"Some people don't know about that approach," Schoemaker said. "It's the best thing to try and get things done through a grassroots effort."

Describing himself as a go-getter, Casey said he has no problem making phone calls, or talking with state representatives and he's encouraging others to get involved.

In a post on his Facebook page Wednesday, Casey encouraged others to call, email or write letters to the NDOT "for as long as it takes for them to understand we have a problem here."

He also planned to talk with District 16 state Sen. Ben Hansen.

Casey said he'll start his efforts with addressing the Deerfield crossing and lack of a school zone designation on Highway 75.

"We need to start somewhere and I ask that you going me here and move forward for the safety of the children in this community," he wrote.

While understanding the decision-making process is in the hands of the NDOT, Casey said some of the problems, such as trucks running red lights in the downtown area and speeds around Deerfield, can be addressed locally, through increased enforcement efforts by Blair police. He said speeds can be reduced, but it all comes down to people following the law.

"I would ask, plead with you, that we have some more enforcement, especially at school time," he said. "I can tell you that when the Blair Police Department has shown up to sit out in front of Deerfield, it's amazing how much people pay attention to the rules. But, the second they are gone, it's right back to the Indianapolis 500."

Council member Jon Stewart vowed to join the effort.

"I'm willing to redouble my efforts again to see what we can do to push hard for a reduction in the speed limit," he said.

In thanking Casey for attending the meeting, council member Brad Andersen also offered support.

"It's all fresh in our minds, too, and we are willing to do what we can," he said.

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