Two years after the death of a 68-year-old Belton woman, a cross, delicately covered by lavender flowers, still lies on the SH 317 bridge, located near campus.
Lanelle Chimene fell from the bridge 20 feet to her death for unknown reasons. Many blame the woman’s fatality on the structure’s insufficient safety precautions. The protective guardrail was only 24 3/8 inches high. Concerned citizens, The Bells and other media outlets expressed concern over the event, prompting officials to take action.
“The death of the elderly woman precipitated the changes and construction to the area,” Belton City Manager, Sam Listi, said.
Renovations to the bridge, which was built in 1957, began in February after critical communication was made between the state and the city of Belton. Because SH 317 is maintained by the state of Texas, construction had to be made by the Texas Department of Public Transportation, not the city. Belton requested that TxDOT reevaluate the current structure.
“It is called a Safety Enhancement Project, and it provides us the opportunity to get this bridge railing retro-fitted prior to a larger project of improvements, currently being planned for that roadway,” Ken Roberts, the local district representative for TxDOT, said. “It came as a result of the city’s expressed concern. Completion and approval of plans and the availability of funding allows this work to take place at this time.”
There are two main types of financial support for project completion — traditional and stimulus. The majority of TxDot’s funding is traditional, meaning projects are paid by legislative appropriations and bond issuances. However, some are stimulus funded, meaning they will be financed by the federal government under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
SH 317 runs north to south from Valley Mills to the intersection of Interstate 35 and U.S. Highway 190.
Predominantly affecting students is the area close to 11th Street, where the elderly woman died in 2007. TxDOT employees are currently working there to heighten the bridge railing 2 feet 8 inches and top it off with a 6-foot chainlink fence. The work is to be finished this month, along with the resurfacing of various sections along SH 317, a project that will cost $514,884.
The 317 project as a whole is broken into three main parts. The construction of new roadway lanes, an estimated $21 million, and the widening of the roadway, an estimated $8 million, are both under traditional financing. Neither has received adequate funding. The projects are set to be done in July 2011 and May 2012, respectively.
Gary Sargent, UMHB chief of police, said regardless of renovations, the bridge is not a safe place for pedestrians.
“The distance between the sidewalk and the roadway is very narrow,” he said. “Students should not run on it because there is so much traffic on Main Street, and there is no escape room once you’re on that bridge.”
Students share similar concerns. Sophomore nursing major, Sarah Herriott, and senior English and psychology double major, Beth Melles, run around campus in the mornings. Both avoid the area because of its obvious dangers.
“(It) is not a safe bridge to be running across,” Herriott said. “Beth and I purposefully avoid the bridge in our running loop. We prefer to run across the train tracks rather than that bridge.”
Heavy traffic along the bridge is an issue for the entire community, but other locations causing legitimate student concern are the entrances into the university from SH 317 at 9th and 10th streets.
“If (the) intersection(s) are prone to a significant amount of accidents, the state will try to take action,” Sargent said, “but what’s the tripping point for the state to take some action?”
Protective measurements along 317 will become a necessity for the university, city and state to address as UMHB’s enrollment increases. The Registrar’s office is expecting more than 500 new freshmen and about 300 transfer students next year. This means more pedestrians and more vehicle traffic.
TxDOT’s current projects do not address that problem.
University President, Dr. Jerry Bawcom, said other construction not listed in TxDOT’s current projects like a possible traffic light is a “separate issue that must be pursued by the city and the university.” But he added, “The need seems to be obvious.”