The students have spoken, and now the former crosswalk on West Eighth Street between Palumbo and A.J.’s Way is back in discussion.
At each Student Government Association (SGA) meeting is the “Student Voice” segment, where Gannon University’s students can vocalize their concerns, air their grievances, or petition the SGA for various requests.
At the Jan. 31 meeting, the “Student Voice” seemed like it would be another mundane one until a lone student, Daniel DeVito, a junior philosophy major, asked the SGA what has been done about the former crosswalk, which the City of Erie had removed in 2011.
What happened next was unexpected: a spirited debate erupted between the SGA Executive Board and the majority of the SGA General Assembly led by the Senior Class Representatives. SGA President Angela Coustillac claimed that the crosswalk was essentially a dead issue, with the university administration submitting to the city of Erie’s wishes of not reinstating it.
Despite initial attempts to sidestep and avoid direct discussion of the issue, the General Assembly put forward and passed a motion making the SGA’s official position to support the West Eighth Street crosswalk.
Going on two years since the crosswalk’s removal, what does such a position mean?
Coustillac said that SGA’s stance is more a ceremonial move than anything, since she has already met with university officials several times regarding the issue. She affirmed that the university isn’t opposed to the crosswalk; the city of Erie is.
Citing reduced safety and interrupted traffic flow on West Eighth Street, the city ordered the crosswalk be removed. Gannon had no choice but to do so, for the crosswalk was never legally established.
In fact, it was put in place to help construction crews traverse the street during the renovation of the old Carlisle’s Department Store into the Palumbo Academic Center during the mid-1990s.
When the city asked for Gannon to remove the crosswalk, they also asked the university to post signs telling the students where the legal crossing point is located: at the intersection of Peach and West Eighth Streets.
While the road markings have been paved over and these signs put in place, students — as well as Gannon faculty and administrators — continue to use the crosswalk with neither the Erie Police Department nor the GU police enforcing the “no crossing zone.”
Fred Rush, coordinator of Community Initiatives for the Mayor’s Office, said the Erie Police have “real issues to deal with” instead of monitoring the crossing point and ticketing individuals for jaywalking.
This laissez-faire attitude in enforcement doesn’t mean that the city’s position on the crosswalk has changed. Rush said he was “perturbed” by students crossing West Eighth Street illegally. He even questioned where the values of today’s students have disappeared.
“As you mature and grow, you can’t forget what your parents taught you,” he said.
While safety is the city’s named concern, SGA Senior Class Representative Joseph Caulfield speculated that there may be other reasons for the removal of the West Eighth Street crosswalk.
“While we can’t prove causality, the fact is shortly after Gannon won a zoning challenge involving parking spots, the crosswalk was removed,” Caulfield, a philosophy major, said.
The city has also grown increasingly wary of Gannon removing properties from the tax roll. Since universities receive tax-exempt status, every property Gannon purchases is not subject to property taxes.
While Gannon does not pay the city taxes, it is proactive in giving back to the Erie community. A recent example of this is the $1.1 million dollar LED lighting project that covers 18 city blocks east to west between Peach and Chestnut streets and north to south from West Third to West Eighth streets.
University President Keith Taylor, Ph.D., has pursued the possibility of re-establishing the crosswalk by meeting with the mayor’s office several times over the past year.
Nonetheless, when he heard about SGA’s official position, he was surprised, adding that while there may be a resurgence of student sentiments towards the crosswalk, the attitude of City Hall has not changed.
Whatever the outcome, all parties stress that safety is their No. 1 concern. Rush said he spoke for himself and Mayor Joe Sinnott, stressing the mayor’s office is “deeply concerned” for the safety of Gannon students.
Students are not so convinced of this and wonder how the removal of the crosswalk has kept them safe.
“Some cars don’t stop,” senior pre-law major Devan Omahen said, “and when it’s icy, I fear that I’ll be hit. It’s almost happened several times.”
Taylor, for his part, emphasized that students must exercise caution when crossing and not become too “comfortable” by forgetting to look for oncoming traffic. He admits that he has seen students texting and looking at their phones rather than proactively looking both ways at the crossing.
As the voice who resurrected this issue at the SGA meeting, DeVito said that not having the crosswalk is the real safety challenge. To him, the crosswalk is not just a student issue or a city issue.
“All benefit from the safety of a crosswalk — both Gannon students and city residents alike,” he said.