County, Castronovo try to reach middle of the road on median issue
By Stuart R. Wahlin
What began as a disagreement with the county regarding a median in front of his home business at 6812 Harrison Ave. has evolved into a safety crusade for Mike Castronovo, owner of Studio B Digital Recording.
Castronovo now says a simple access point for his business isn’t nearly enough to silence him.
“They seem to think there has to be a number of accidents, or a number of lives lost before it justifies doing anything,” Castronovo said, “and I don’t believe that at all.”
A long road
In April, Castronovo first appealed to the Winnebago County Board to scrap the highway department’s plan to rebuild the 200-foot-long median that had once prevented left turns into and out of his business.
“I’ve run my business for the past 17 years at that location, and for all that time, my customers and neighbors have been blocked by a 6-inch-tall, 18-foot-wide median,” Castronovo told board members in April. “This median was removed last fall, and for about eight months, my neighbors and my customers have been able to access our entrances from either direction. There have been no accidents, no incidents, during all this time.”
Castronovo argued other four-lane roads, like East State Street, do not have medians, and said the median would also impede emergency responders to the neighborhood when seconds count.
Castronovo’s board representatives, District 10 Republicans John Ekberg and Bob Kinnison, vowed to draft a resolution in support of Castronovo’s plight. They kept their word, but the resolution was voted down in May after the board’s Public Works Committee opted not to support the measure.
Before the vote, Castronovo referenced 17 other access openings in medians between Alpine and Perryville roads, adding, “One more is not going to make anything dangerous.”
The debate takes a personal turn
Castronovo then unleashed his wrath on County Engineer Joe Vanderwerff in particular, arguing work had already commenced on the median before the board could vote on the issue. Kinnison agreed with Castronovo’s assertion that the move was “an affront to the county board.”
“It wasn’t as if the highway department didn’t know we were going to at least debate this,” Kinnison asserted. “There’s no reason that that couldn’t have waited until we debated this tonight and move forward, regardless of whether you agree with this or not.”
Vanderwerff indicated, however, that the only concrete poured was for curb and gutter, and that the portion of median in front of Castronovo’s property was on hold until the matter had been decided by the board.
“We talked about it internally, and decided at that point in time that we’d leave the opening for the access to this one particular residence so we would not be involved in the decision-making process that you are all going through right now,” Vanderwerff explained to the board.
As drafted, the resolution only asked that there be an access point in front of the business—not that the median should be eliminated completely. With much of the median already in place by that time, a report to board members indicated the cost of removing the divider, as Castronovo had wished, could be as much as $650,000.
Clearly at odds with Vanderwerff by that point, Castronovo asked board members for a vote of “no confidence” in the highway engineer.
“In a face-to-face conversation with Mr. Vanderwerff…he told me, ‘I don’t want you to have a cut in,’” Castronovo alleged during the June 25 meeting. “He went on to say: ‘You shouldn’t be running a business there anyway. You should be in a commercial district.’”
Responding to the allegation, Vanderwerff told The Rock River Times: “What I told him is my recommendation to the county board is that they do not provide him with access at that location, because we believe it’s an unsafe decision.”
Vanderwerff noted the median had been in place before the Harrison Avenue reconstruction project, adding, “We’re not taking anything away from him.”
Despite defeat, Castronovo would not relent. In June, once he and his neighbors had been forced to reacquaint themselves with the right-turn-only scenario, Castronovo pleaded for a left-turn lane to be cut into the median, which the highway department reported would cost between $22,000 and $45,000. But Castronovo argued he was told the cut would only cost $5,000.
Assistant County Engineer Wayne Vlk concurred the cost of the requested cut would only be about $5,000, but that the necessary engineering and design processes would account for the additional expenses.
Vanderwerff acknowledged Castronovo had been advised of the $5,000 figure, but that he’d explained to Castronovo’s attorney that such a plan was not likely to be met by federal and state approval.
Although board members ignored Castronovo’s request to revisit the matter by not voting whether to support the cut, he remained tenacious, but was denied an opportunity to address the board July 9.
County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) explained the matter about which Castronovo planned to speak had already been decided by the board, and that personal attacks on Vanderwerff or any other personnel do not belong in open session.
At a subsequent meeting, he returned to the board room to argue that there are no rules on the county’s books to prevent members of the public from speaking for the reasons given in July.
“There’s nothing in this ordinance that says what subject matter can be talked about,” he asserted. “There’s nothing in this ordinance that talks about that I, as a citizen, cannot mention the name if I deem it proper.”
Not just about access to his business anymore
Amending his strategy for the July 23 meeting, Castronovo took aim at what he considered other design flaws along the newly-rebuilt Harrison Avenue, including a left-turn lane at residential Carman Drive that is longer than turn lanes at Perryville Road near CherryVale Mall.
He argued eastbound drivers can’t see Carman Drive from where its turn lane begins, and that many motorists assume the lane is actually for turning onto Perryville Road. The result, he said, is that cars are forced to maneuver around a median to proceed to the Perryville Road turn lanes, which Castronovo said he considered a serious safety issue.
In October, Castronovo presented board members with documentation of seven accidents in three months at Harrison Avenue and Perryville Road.
He explained that westbound traffic on Harrison must awkwardly shift to the right at the intersection, and that if a driver in the outer lane doesn’t do so, the vehicle in the inside lane will be forced into the median, which has already occurred on a number of occasions.
He added, “A senior rep from the Highway Department told me that when someone gets killed, then we’ll look at removing the median.”
Once the television news media began to take notice of the issue, however, the county responded by painting stripes across the intersection to help guide traffic.
But with the winter months now upon the area, Castronovo fears snow and slush will render the new striping useless, and that accidents are bound to sharply increase.
“There’s accidents happening at Perryville,” he said. “There’s now accidents happening by Carman. There’s gonna be more when the snow comes down, and it gets slippery, and people can’t see all those stripes you’ve got all over the street.”
His plea to remove the median before winter resulted in no action by the board, however.
‘You bet there’ll be a lawsuit’
Another traffic accident in late November may have prompted reconsideration by the county, however. According to Castronovo, the accident was the result of a motorist traveling on the wrong side of the median at night. When the driver realized the mistake, he explained, the only course of action was to jump the median to get out of the path of oncoming traffic.
“This could have been a lethal accident, and it wouldn’t have happened if that would have been a rumble strip or passable median,” Castronovo told The Rock River Times. “But because it was a big, 6-inch median, it threw her car out of whack, and it could have killed her.”
In a document outlining disadvantages of raised medians, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) concurred, “When accidentally struck, curb may cause a driver to lose control of the vehicle.”
Castronovo believes the cost of corrective action now would be little compared to the cost of a lawsuit later.
“The county’s gonna be liable. This gal was almost killed,” he said. “She was on the wrong side of the road. That was her fault, but she should have been able to get back to the right side of the road without dying, and that’s what almost happened.
“If a customer gets killed out there because of this, oh, you bet there’ll be a lawsuit—a big one—because I’ve warned them over and over it will happen,” he added. “The point is the safety of the people in this neighborhood and the high disregard for it, and I don’t go for that.”
Squeaky wheel on Harrison to be oiled?
Although not personally present, Chairman Christiansen ordered a Dec. 2 meeting at Studio B to discuss potential solutions. Castronovo described the sit-down as “mediocre to good.”
During the meeting, Castronovo reported, safety issues regarding the Carman and Perryville intersections were discussed, as well as the median in front of his business.
“There’s three situations out here that are dangerous, and in all three situations, people can get killed,” he said, noting that different types of medians were discussed.
“We shouldn’t even have raised medians out there, because people are hitting the sides of it all the time—you see those black marks on it,” he noted. “IDOT will not let you put a raised median on roads where the traffic flows higher than 45 miles-an-hour, because they consider the median itself to be a danger.”
Although the speed limit is 45 along the stretch, Castronovo asserted: “People travel 50 and 55 on it. So, yeah, you’ve got a legal median out there, but you don’t have a safe median.”
Following the meeting, he noted, county staff lingered outside, appearing to be weighing their options to ease the safety concerns. That is, until a television news crew pulled in.
Castronovo had been asked by Vanderwerff that no media be present during the meeting.
“These people from the county were all standing out there by their cars, chit-chatting, pointing. [The television crew] pulled in, and they literally scurried for their cars,” Castronovo recounted in amusement.
The Rock River Times followed up with Vanderwerff to determine what, if any, remedies are being considered based on Castronovo’s suggestions.
Because it is evident some westbound vehicles have struck the center island at Harrison and Perryville, the county appears poised to make further enhancements at the intersection.
“I didn’t think it would hurt if we put some pavement grooves in there, similar to what you see on, maybe, Bypass 20 along the shoulders, so if you kind of go off the lane a little bit, you hit those pavement grooves,” Vanderwerff proposed. “We’ve talked internally about it. We thought it would be a good idea, and we think we’re going to go ahead and do it.”
He noted, however, the county will need approval from the Village of Cherry Valley first.
“We’re talking to them about it now, and I should know shortly whether or not they’re going to approve that,” Vanderwerff added.
Addressing the issue of nighttime motorists who may not be familiar with the median dividing eastbound and westbound traffic on Harrison Avenue, Vanderwerff maintained that removing the median is not the answer.
“That road is three times safer with the median in place than it is without it,” he asserted. “And, obviously, if you remove the median for a homeowner/business, many other people will want the same thing, and then you’ll lose that median. With a safety history that we can document…we don’t think it’s a good idea to remove it at all.
“One thing we can do to enhance that median, we thought…is to have some reflectors out in front of the driveway where people would be able to see those reflectors if they pulled out at night, and know that there’s something in front of them—they need to turn right,” Vanderwerff indicated. “We’re thinking our policy on that would be, if you had a business where it’s likely that people from out of town wouldn’t otherwise know, that we would put reflectors on the medians in front of those drives.”
As for Castronovo’s assertion that the left-turn lane at Carman Drive should be shortened, Vanderwerff disagreed.
“We have reviewed that,” he responded. “We don’t see a reason to change it.
“I’m thinking, if we shorten it up…more people may think they’ll be at Perryville Road, because they won’t be looking for Carman,” he noted. “They’ll see those signals up ahead.”
Instead, Vanderwerff said the county plans to add a sign noting the turn lane is for Carman Drive.
Meantime, Castronovo said he plans to address the board again Dec. 10.
“I’m stepping on their toes enough that they’re starting to react,” he beamed. “And I’m hoping the reaction will make changes out here, and will prevent people from getting killed. That’s the goal.”
From the Dec. 9-15, 2009 issue
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