By Nathan and Katie Dawson
Students at Rudolph Gordon School in the city of Fountain Inn enjoyed a better option for walking to and from school for the first time this week. A new mid-block crosswalk was established by SCDOT at a location providing better access, visibility and safety for student walkers. There were a lot of factors that went into our community’s crosswalk completion including suburban growth, an injury, community work, and funding advocacy to improve infrastructure and police service.
Our family sold our house at the beginning of 2020 and moved from Abingdon, VA to be near family in the Carolinas. We immediately felt at home in Fountain Inn since it had a similar small-town feel and close proximity to mountainous adventures. With young kids, we knew Jones Mill Crossing was the community for us since we work from home and our commute to Rudolph Gordon School would be our biggest for the next decade as the school is the only K-8 school in Greenville County.
Once the kids started school, we realized the route to school was challenging for young kids to make in the early morning hours consistently as it required taking an indirect route and crossing at an intersection with heavy traffic along with several other smaller crossings in front of moving cars in the car line. We started reaching out to government entities to add our voices of concern via phone calls and emails, but so much more was required to get the new crosswalk established by SCDOT and Greenville County Schools (GCS).
Suburban Growth Factors
The first request for a crosswalk was made by the Jones Mill Crossing neighborhood developer, Cothran Properties, in the fall of 2016. Cothran Properties requested to add the mid-block crosswalk during the early stages of the design of Jones Mill Crossing when Rudolph Gordon was just an elementary school. The mid-block crosswalk was denied at the time due to SCDOT’s requirement for a police officer or county crossing guard at a mid-block crosswalk and a lack of commitment to a sidewalk by GCS to connect it on school property.
Parents voiced concern and requested the crosswalk to be added in the last few years but an increase in population density escalated the need. Houses in our community are built close together and near the school so many households are positioned to benefit from this close proximity with an opportunity to walk kids to school.
Over the last 6 years, more homes have been built and the neighborhood finally reached capacity in early 2022 with 136 homes and over 200 pedestrian crossing occurrences daily during school commute times at Scuffletown Road. Up until 2020, not all grades were included at Rudolph Gordon as they gradually added an upper grade each year: 6th grade in 2018, 7th grade in 2019, and finally 8th grade in 2020. The new Fountain Inn High School also opened 2 miles away starting with the 9th grade in the fall of 2021. These new students at the middle school and the new high school are adding to a drastic increase in traffic on Scuffletown and Jones Mill roads during school commute hours. As pandemic-era virtual learning mostly subsided, students returned to in-person learning in droves making the crossing of Scuffletown Road increasingly dangerous.
On September 3, 2021, a father and his 8 and 5-year-old daughters were hit by a truck at the signalized intersection. They were crossing with the walk symbol lit, following all of the rules yet still suffered injuries, time away from work and school, and an increased fear in walking to school. Thankfully, the injuries were not life-threatening, but it reinforced the need to make improvements in creating a safer route to school for every person in our community.
Unfortunately, it often takes a negative incident to spur government action to actually spend money to address problems in a community, particularly when it comes to pedestrian safety.
Government officials held a meeting in the weeks after the family’s injury but did not include community members. Officials began some improvements to the stop light to yield moderate risk reduction such as adding all red in every direction when the walk signs are lit. As a community, we continued to work toward adding the mid-block crosswalk by gathering data on the number of times pedestrians cross Scuffletown Road, organizing a walk-to-school day event attracting print and TV media attention in October, and finally organizing a walk audit in November with key stakeholders that have never walked the route during school morning commute hours.
The walk audit resulted in SCDOT stating the same thing that was told to the developer Cothran Properties 6 years ago: 1) the school must include a connecting sidewalk to the crosswalk and 2) students must have a crossing guard or police officer present during morning and afternoon school commute times. SCDOT’s requirements have never changed, but at the November walk audit meeting Greenville County Schools finally agreed to add a sidewalk on Rudolph Gordon School property costing tens of thousands of dollars, fulfilling one of SCDOT’s requirements.
This was a huge victory but obtaining a commitment for an officer or crossing guard (through county or city funds) proved to be a greater challenge as both denied any willingness to commit until the crosswalk is established.
Staffing a county crossing guard position is a lengthy process – it requires a traffic study to be performed at a crosswalk that already exists. If the road is deemed too busy, a crossing guard cannot be established due to safety concerns for the crossing guard. If a position is selected for funding, the county has had great difficulty in hiring and keeping the positions staffed at the hourly rates they are able to pay.
SCDOT would not establish the crosswalk until an officer was committed yet the city and county would not consider staffing a crossing guard until a crosswalk existed – presenting a chicken and egg scenario that had no resolution other than committing to pay for the officer through private funding in order to jumpstart the entire process.
Although the city of Fountain Inn was unable to provide an officer during November negotiations, there was willingness and availability for an officer to be hired at a cost. Homes within a 1-mile radius from the school with a city of Fountain Inn address pay over half a million dollars in taxes each year and nearly $200,000 specifically to the city of Fountain Inn. With a police budget of $2.6 million, the cost of service requested is 0.2% of the annual budget and approximately 4% of the tax revenue for Fountain Inn generated by the homes within walking distance of the school. After recent meetings, the City of Fountain Inn leaders have been favorable about funding the morning officer as a city provided service in their 2023-2024 annual budget ,but no formal commitment has yet been made.
We want to thank Bike Walk Greenville as they provided resources, administrative support, web space and a funding base at no cost to our community. Our funding goal is nearly met as many generous businesses and individuals have contributed to the fund, including larger donations from Toll Brothers and The Spinks Family Foundation. Ultimately, the crosswalk traffic officer needs to move to public funding. We are hopeful about the city of Fountain Inn’s efforts to make improvements for pedestrian safety, and grateful to SCDOT and Greenville County Schools for following through with their commitments to improve walkability for students.
Achieving a victory for the children of Rudolph Gordon School is something to be celebrated, but there are dozens more schools with no walkability or focus on pedestrian safety in Greenville County, so a great deal of work remains to be done in the coming years.
If you would like to give towards this project, donations can be made here to the Capital Project Fund.