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Votes

From Yield to Stop

In Richmond, local delegation fight for pedestrian safety gets run over.

City Hall’s goal of making the streets of Alexandria safer for pedestrians has met with mixed reviews in Richmond — and now the measure has been postponed until next year. Since City Manager Jim Hartmann included the item in the legislative packet in December, the idea has faced a wall of resistance. Now, with the session half over, the bill is on its way to the Courts of Justice Committee — a legislative limbo where many bills are sent to die. Nevertheless, city officials are hopeful that something can be worked out eventually.

“The high volume of traffic often makes it difficult for pedestrians to cross roads, even at crosswalks,” Hartmann wrote in his original recommendation for the legislation. “Many Northern Virginia elected officials and residents believe that pedestrian safety would be enhanced if drivers were required to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks.”

Similar legislation was proposed in 2003 and 2004. Each time, the measure met with failure — being picked apart by legislators who are eager to keep traffic moving. But this year, the strategy has changed. The language of the bill was streamlined to avoid the unintended consequences that troubled the measure in the past.

The legislative drama started this year when state Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-30) introduced a bill in the Senate that would require drivers to stop for pedestrians. The current Virginia statue says that drivers must yield, and Ticer’s bill was intended to put more of an onus on drivers to ensure pedestrian safety. City Councilman Rob Krupicka traveled to Richmond to testify for the bill.

“Rob did a very good job,” Ticer said at the time. “But it did absolutely no good at all because the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee was against it. He must be in his car too much.”

State Sen. Martin Williams (R-1), chairman of the committee, voted with the majority to kill the bill. He represents Newport News, an area that Ticer thought could benefit from the legislation.

“It’s too bad that the City Council of Newport News didn’t get involved in this,” Ticer said last month. “We could have had a different outcome.”

A week after Ticer’s bill died in committee, she introduced a similar measure. It was softened to meet the approval of critics in the Transportation Committee, requiring drivers traveling at a maximum speed of 35 miles per hour to stop for pedestrians crossing the highway or street at any clearly marked crosswalk. The new version of the bill stipulated that when crossing highways, “pedestrians shall not interfere with the orderly passage of vehicles or enter a highway into the path of a vehicle that is so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield.”

“What does that mean?” asked Peggy Papp, Ticer’s legislative aide. “The new version is primarily a placeholder so we can fix it in conference.”

Ticer admitted that the new bill was not ideal. “It’s a shell of its former self,” she said.

EVENTS IN THE Senate Transportation Committee were a setback to the local delegation, but the weakened version of the bill kept the measure alive. Del. Brian Moran (D-46) introduced Ticer’s original bill in the House of Delegates — knowing it would have a difficult time in the House Transportation Committee. The language of Moran’s bill was simpler and more declarative: “The driver of any vehicle on a highway where the legal maximum speed does not exceed 35 miles per hour shall stop for any pedestrian crossing such highway.”

When the delegates took up the measure last week, House Transportation Committee Chairman Del. Leo Wardrup (R-83) was immediately hostile to the idea.

“We’ve had this bill about eight years in a row,” Wardrup said, adding that he was reluctant to add unnecessary provisions to the Virginia code. “The operators you are talking about are already breaking the law.”

Del. John Welch (R-21) was also hostile to the idea, describing the legislation as unnecessary and frivolous.

“This bill would create confusion,” he said. “Every driving school in the commonwealth teaches that if a pedestrian is crossing the street, they are not a target.”

But Moran held his ground, describing the bill as necessary to protect pedestrians from motorists who were confused about the proper course of action.

“What gives rise to dangerous situations is that drivers are told to yield,” Moran said, adding that his recent experience pushing a stroller through traffic has given him a new perspective on the situation. “You don’t know if cars are going to stop or yield or what.”

FOR A SECOND TIME, Krupicka traveled to Richmond to testify for the measure. Although his time before the Senate Transportation Committee was unsuccessful, he was hoping that he could find more favor in the House.

“Welcome to the circus,” Chairman Wardrup told Krupicka.

The councilman launched into a spirited defense of the bill, describing it as a necessary change to the Virginia code. He said that the current situation creates confusion and dangerously subjective safety standards — making the simple act of crossing the street a difficult and frustrating experience.

“Pedestrians have to guess or read minds or something,” he said. “The primary goal of this bill if public safety.”

Krupicka said that as a father of two children, he was concerned for the safety of those who might accidentally find themselves in the path of a two-ton vehicle. He implored members of the committee to consider recent pedestrian fatalities that could have been prevented by a simple change to the code.

When it came time for the committee to vote, the bill met with unexpected success. The House Transportation Committee passed the bill in a 15-7 vote, sending the bill to the House floor.

“The bill is reported,” said Chairman Wardrup. “Good luck.”

AFTER THE HEARING, Krupicka stood in the hall outside the committee room in the lobby of the General Assembly Building chatting with legislators who were congratulating him on the victory. On his way to talk to Krupicka, Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49) stopped to greet a group of visiting schoolchildren from the district of Del. Glenn Oder (R-94).

“Your delegate made it safer for kids to cross the street today,” he told the group of children.

Ebbin then turned his attention to Krupicka.

“I was glad to see a bipartisan vote for this,” he said.

Krupicka was also happy with the vote.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” he joked.

A few hours after the committee vote, Ticer took to the airwaves to defend the pedestrian-safety measure. In an interview with Barbara Berlin, host of a public-television show that is taped in the basement of the General Assembly Building, Ticer said that the success of Moran’s bill was a good sign that the House and Senate might be able to work a compromise between the two versions of the bill.

“It’s so simple,” she said during the televised interview. “If someone is in a crosswalk, you stop for them.”

BUT NOT EVERYONE thinks the idea is simple or admirable. Many legislators who fear slowing traffic or contributing to gridlock are opposed to forcing drivers to stop at a crosswalk. And detail-oriented minds in the General Assembly want to be sure that the code of the commonwealth will not be burdened by excessive or repetitive language.

When Moran’s bill found its way to the House floor on Tuesday, these objections carried the day. By a vote of 58 to 40, the House voted to refer the bill to the Courts of Justice Committee for further study. According to the General Assembly’s legislative information system, Moran’s bill has been “left in Courts of Justice.” Ticer’s bill may face the same fate in the Senate, essentially killing the measure until next year

“It’s not dead,” Krupicka said moments after the vote on the House floor. “We just have to wait until next session.”

Krupicka said that the delay might be valuable, giving advocates of the measure an opportunity to address some concerns of opponents.

“It’s possible that the entire code section will be re-written so that it will be more concise,” he said. “We going to keep working on this over the summer. We’ve got a big network of supporters all over the state.”

WHEN THE CITY’S LOBBYIST announced the House action to City Council members at Tuesday’s meeting, council members were disappointed. With Moran’s bill making it out of the House Transportation Committee, hopes were high that the General Assembly might take some kind of action on the idea this year. Now that these hopes have been dashed, some were questioning how anyone could oppose the idea of requiring drivers to stop at crosswalks.

“I’m really having a hard time understanding what the problem is,” Councilwoman Joyce Woodson told Caton.

“I am too,” Caton responded.

Krupicka speculated that something must have happened under the radar to kill the bill. Because it passed the committee on a 15 to 7 vote and its first reading on the House floor received a 55 to 44 vote, Krupicka wondered how the votes had changed so quickly against the bill.

“People were talked to. That’s the only thing I can imagine,” he said. “There are some very powerful men in Richmond who don’t like this bill and don’t want to see it passed.”