Setting vision a priority for new AthFest director

By Clay Reynolds

Jill Helme brings a unique mix of skills to her new position as director of the downtown Athens based nonprofit AthFest Educates.

A former English teacher and school administrator, she left her job working with a school system in Orlando Florida to pursue a masters degree in nonprofit leadership – a step she took with an ultimate objective of becoming the executive director of a nonprofit organization centered around education or youth.

A nonprofit like this one was exactly what she had in mind.

“My entire path has been leading me to this,” Helme said.

Helme, named director of the organization this past week, replaces previous director and founder Jared Bailey, who stepped down earlier this year. She takes over the position April 15.

She comes into the job hoping to help the organization set a more of a future vision in its efforts at sponsoring music and arts education programs for kids in local schools.

AthFest Educates supports grants to local educators through its two well-known fundraisers: the AthFest Music and Arts Festival each summer and the AthHalf half marathon every fall.

Highly successful with those events, the organization’s board wanted to bring in someone who could help better translate those dollars into the community impact they want to make.

Helme fit into their plan perfectly.

“Their mission is so clear. They just want to make sure they can achieve that mission,” she said. “I felt like I was a big piece of that puzzle.”

Helme moved to Athens last year when her husband took a job with the University of Georgia’s Dept. of Student Affairs.

She joined in on his trip to interview for the position, and made sure to bring along their 2-year-old son so they both could scout out Athens as a place to live, work and go to school.

It made the cut.

“It was really important to me to feel like we could live and work in a college town even though we were not directly connected to the school,” Helme said.

She graduated with a bachelors degree from the University of Florida – a college town atmosphere she said is totally different from Athens.

“Living in a place like Gainesville, truly the whole culture was the college,” she said. “Athens has a complete separate identity. People who aren’t connected to the university still have a whole separate culture.”

Quite a bit of that culture will reside just outside the door of her new downtown office, housed in the AthFest headquarters on Clayton Street. She’s only been there a few times, but is still new enough to not have memorized the address.

Helme expects the change in leadership to be largely transparent, especially since she’ll leave much of the organizing work behind this year’s already-scheduled music festival and race to those who have done it in years previous.

She will mostly throw her efforts behind evaluating the programs AthFest helps fund for effectiveness and purpose, and look to develop long-term plans for improving them.

“They’re clear on who they want to serve and the kind of impact they want to have,” Helme said of the AthFest board’s objectives. “What’s not perfectly clear is where they want to be in three years. They want somebody to help pull all those ideas together and to get it into some kind of vision.”

She describes her passion as working with youth, ages 13-20. She realized that in five years spent teaching English and language arts, four of them in Orlando and a fifth in Valencia, Venezuela.

Helme eventually moved out of education to do more work dealing with youth development and after-school programming. Her family spent time living in Orlando, Philadelphia and Chicago before making their most recent move to Athens.

They felt attracted to the Classic City for a number of reasons, especially the low cost of living, which has enabled them to spend more time together. But she was most intrigued by the sense of community she noticed in all spheres of Athens life.

“It’s definitely a community effort,” Helme said. “Everybody is focused on doing what’s going to build and better their community.”

Athens is different from places she’s previously lived, but is great in its own way.

“There are a lot of things I miss,” she said. “But a lot of great things about living in a smaller town that you couldn’t replicate anywhere else.”

Student campaign for arch accessibility moving forward

By Clay Reynolds

Senior Khaled Alsafadi heard a lot about the tradition of passing underneath the arch after graduating from the University of Georgia at his freshman orientation nearly four years ago.

But Alsafadi, bound to a wheelchair, will be unable to take part in that rite of passage when he graduates unless a ramp is built through the structure, which is currently impassible for students who, like him, are mobility impaired and can’t walk up or down the stairs in front of it.

Last month, he and two other UGA students, sophomore Marquise Lane and junior Carden Wyckoff, organized a movement to make the arch accessible by building a ramp through it.

The group is now making its first set of strides toward bringing their proposal to fruition. They will take their ideas before the Student Government Association on Tuesday, and bring with them the apparent support of thousands of students.

Though not the first to come forward with this idea, the team’s case for a change and widespread support of their cause could make them the first to win many of the battles that stand in the way of accomplishing the goal – especially overcoming opposition to the proposal that still exists from top officials.

“Our ultimate goal is to make sure that all alumni have equal access to the tradition,” Wyckoff said.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, governs standards of handicap accessibility in public facilities, and prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities by limiting their access to or mobility within “places of public accommodations” – for example, buses, courthouses and doctors offices.

The arch does not fall under the category of a public facility in which accessibility is required, according most experts, since it serves no more than a symbolic function in the university’s day-to-day operations. Alternate access points to north campus are also available nearby for those unable to walk by or through the arch.

The need for a ramp comes in such times that students like Alsafadi, Lane and Wyckoff would want to return to campus and pass through the arch as alumni, particularly after graduation and at football games in the fall.

That sentiment has led some UGA officials to propose installing a temporary ramp during those significant times of year, though the students are pushing for a more permanent solution.

“I’m not just coming back for graduation and not just coming back for a football game,” Wyckoff said. “We want to have access to it at any point in time, regardless of when and where.”

They say a proposal similar to this one has come up and gained popularity among students once about every four or five years in the last several decades, according to what they’ve learned in research and through interactions with UGA’s disability resource center.

In about a month’s-worth of organizing the campaign, the three have mostly worked to organize support and gain publicity through petitions, social media and local and national news outlets.

As of March 19, the group’s Facebook page had received 2,136 likes, and a petition to make the arch accessible had garnered 1,185 signatures.

“It’s mind-blowing to me,” Lane said of the support he’s seen for the movement. “I never really thought 2,000 people could like a page that just three people were a part of.”

Social media, a tool many groups who took on this issue before them didn’t have, could end up making a difference in whether or not the movement gains traction and sees results.

“It’s our main point of access,” Wyckoff said.

The group has discussed their ideas in detail with the Disability Resource Center, University Architects and Student Government Association. Those meetings have produced three design proposals, all which feature a ramp being put in place through just two of the arch’s three pillars, but only one providing direct access to and from the sidewalk on Broad Street.

Photo gallery: design proposals

In communications with many higher-ups about the campaign, they have experienced some pushback.

“We’ve gotten some resistance from top administration,” Alsafadi said. “But we’re not going to take no for an answer. We’re going to keep going with it until it’s done.”

The counter-argument to theirs is not one of cost. Alsafadi said the representatives of the DRC believes cost of improvements wouldn’t be an issue, and even if it were, the group would be willing to raise the necessary funds themselves.

“We would raise money in a heartbeat,” Wyckoff said.

The primary issue many administrators have deals with aesthetics, and preserving the current look of the arch in accordance with procedures for making improvements to historical sites. The project would also require cooperation of the Athens-Clarke County unified government, which owns the sidewalk in front of it.

The students insist they’re concerned with maintaining the arch’s appearance as much as they are about creating equal access to it.

“We don’t want to do anything that’s going to mess up the appearance and make it look not as appealing,” Alsafadi said.

An accessible arch would perhaps be even more in keeping with history than the current arch is. Wyckoff has uncovered photos from before the 1900s that prove the original arch was on level ground with the rest of north campus. Stairs were not added until after the turn of the 20th century.

Alsafadi, Lane and Wyckoff are optimistic that their campaign will produce results several months down the road, although the immediate outlook for their plan is uncertain.

Their case for making the arch accessible is one of equality, but it’s not as much about convenience as tradition – enabling everyone to take part in the simple, yet meaningful tradition of passing through the arch.

“The pillars, on their own, they stand for moderation, wisdom and justice,” Alsafadi said. “You have to give justice to all your students, not just the able-bodied ones. We all go through the same work and even have to go through more obstacles that we overcome, so we should be able to partake in the tradition.”

Athens working to solve downtown traffic congestion

By Clay Reynolds

The UGA arch looks out over the T-shaped interchange of Broad Street and College Avenue – a crossroads that is one of downtown Athens’ most active traffic junctions and a role-player in frustration many drivers experience when it comes to traffic delays.

The intersection’s activity mainly comes from the vehicles on Broad. Yet the signal governing the intersection, which runs on a fixed timer, gives what little traffic is on College Avenue just as much green time.

Except at the busiest times of the day, it’s rare to see more than a few vehicles waiting at the light on College to turn left or right onto the main thoroughfare. The 60 seconds usually afforded to them late in the afternoon on a weekday is ample time for them to move through after the waiting pedestrians cross over.

So in most instances, half of the time in that cycle length goes to waste as drivers on Broad idle at the red light watching the opposite signal remains green for no one.

These situations, at peak traffic hours, often lead to congestion around the Broad-College intersection and others downtown. This causes some minor, albeit significant, delays for motorists and other travelers through the area.

The Athens-Clarke County Transportation and Public Works Department’s approach to remedying the problem entails a technology upgrade for many of these fixed-time traffic signals downtown. Drivers, according to ACC head traffic engineer Steve Decker, could see a “major difference” in the amount of traffic congestion downtown as a result of these improvements.

The strategy, termed “actuation,” involves the addition of pavement sensors, cameras and pedestrian buttons that allow signals which previously ran on fixed time to self-adjust to fluctuating traffic patterns and run more efficiently.

Current plans call for eight intersections on Thomas, Dougherty and Pulaski Streets, which form part of the downtown perimeter, to receive these upgrades by the end of the fiscal year in June.

Actuating intersections on Broad from Newton Street to Thomas Street would be the next step in the process, although the project, taking place on a state-maintained highway, requires partnership with the Georgia Dept. of Transportation and therefore more time.

Decker says rebuilding the signals on the bordering streets will improve the flow of traffic around downtown and better complement the fixed-time system still in place at intersections inside that boundary.

“What we’re trying to do is get the traffic flow on those four roadways and eventually Broad to go around the city, then when you’re leaving it should allow you to get around much more quickly and reduce the delays and congestion,” Decker said. “I would prefer that the bordering streets all be actuated. That way I can do a much better coordination system. It’s not working to the degree that I’d like it to work.”

Actuation is the antithesis of “coordination,” whereby traffic signals run on preset cycle lengths determined by studies of traffic volume at different times of day. Athens-Clarke County currently runs 11 coordinated signal systems chains of related intersections on or adjoining major roads or in a particular area that are calibrated to optimize traffic flow and efficiency. One of these networks covers the downtown area, also known as the central business district (CBD).

Planners and traffic engineers make common practice of using coordination in CBDs like downtown Athens where intersections are equally-spaced and in close proximity to one another. Consistent traffic flow in all directions allows these signals to run efficiently together, and they’re cost-effective, according to a handbook by Robert L. Gordon on signal timing practices in the U.S.

But what’s atypical about downtown Athens is Broad Street, which is more of an arterial highway fed by tributary roads than a downtown street crossing with traffic paths of equal significance. Broad’s size and traffic volume are both greater than that of any of the streets that intersect it, yet the signals at its intersections operate as if their traffic patterns are comparable.

These signals often give more time to movements on secondary streets than is needed, forcing those on the main road to wait on traffic that has already cleared the intersection. Because of coordinated signals’ inability to sense real-time changes in traffic patterns, intersections like those on Broad operate below optimal efficiency and often intensify congestion.

“Waiting when there’s nobody there – that’s a lot of unnecessary delay,” Decker said. “That goes away with actuation. Time goes back to the main street and it reduces people sitting there.”

Decker says the plan to upgrade the intersections on the perimeter streets should amount to a 20-30 percent improvement in efficiency.

“Efficiency is fluctuating,” he said. “Our goal is to try to make it as efficient as possible.”

Congestion, while never significant, makes the difference of several minutes added onto the commute through downtown for motorists.

“It’s pretty annoying,” UGA junior Andy Bedingfield said of the traffic he’ll sometimes experience downtown around 5 p.m. “There’ve been times that a place I’d normally get to in 10 minutes would take 20 or more.”

Cars aren’t the only vehicles that have problems with congestion downtown.

Buses on Campus Transit’s East-West route shuttle passengers from west campus through downtown via Broad Street toward the main library.

Jerod Beck, a sophomore from Dacula, drives the East-West route during the noon hour on Mondays when traffic reaches its midday height due to UGA’s 12:05 class change and a tide of motorists headed to lunch.

Cars traveling east stack up on Broad between Lumpkin Street and the arch bus stop near College Avenue, making it hard for buses like his to make their way back into the right-of-way. This ordeal adds five to seven minutes to the time it takes him to get between stops at Hull Street and the Main Library, in essence doubling the time it takes for passengers to ride that portion of the route.

“All the delay is primarily due to moving in and out of the arch bus stop,” Beck said. “We’re dependent upon other buses, courtesy of other drivers or open space to merge back in.”

The plan will offer moderate benefits to pedestrians. Crosswalk signals downtown will now have buttons on them to record the presence of foot-traffic waiting to cross the road.

A number of pedestrians surveyed said they generally had no problems with delays while walking downtown.

UGA student Sophie Archer, who lives downtown, said traffic at the Broad-College intersection is bad at certain times of day, but never delays her as a pedestrian.

Another student who frequently walks through downtown said the wait time to cross is not a problem for her. “It doesn’t make me late to class or anything,” she said.

Both, however, said they would be in favor of improvements to the intersection if it made things faster.

Actuating intersections involves installation of either “inductive loops,” electronic sensors embedded in the pavement behind an intersection’s “stop bar,” or mounted cameras. Either or both of these technologies serve to detect vehicles as they roll up, and feed that information into a computer that also takes input from pedestrian “push for walk signal” buttons and adjusts the timing of cycle patterns accordingly.

Outside of programming, the process of putting this equipment in place isn’t extensive. Decker’s staff cuts their own sensor loops, and he says they can usually get everything done for a given intersection in a day or two. But gadgetry for all the intersections must be in place before they can program the network and flip the switch.

A number of factors hold his office back from completing the project. Staff limitations have forced them to make upgrading the intersections a side project balanced with other priorities related to traffic signals, street markings and signage across town.

Ill-timed construction and maintenance work downtown has undone much of their progress in the past year.

Construction of The Standard on the corner of Thomas and Dougherty streets destroyed the instruments that were already in place at the intersection. A recent road resurfacing project downtown also invalidated much of the work they’d done and forced them to start over.

“We’re doing it as we can,” Decker said. “Every time we start on it something happens.”

The costs of the actuation updates are within their budget, since signal efficiency upgrades fall within a stated goal of ensuring “maximum roadway capacity and reduced delay at signalized intersections through a comprehensive signal upgrade and signal system re-timing program” outlined in last year’s Transportation and Public Works biennial report.

Sensor loops, according to Decker, cost between 300 and 500 dollars. Combined with the cost of programming and other required mechanisms like wiring, buttons and signal heads, actuation upgrades can add up to a price tag of thousands of dollars apiece – a ballpark figure of 250,000 dollars, according to the ACC Traffic Engineering Division webpage.

Is shaving off a few minutes from the commute time through downtown worth that cost?

Decker believes the project will return on the investment once the upgrades to Broad Street are fully completed. The congestion issues that continue in the meantime, he says, aren’t serious.

“It’s not efficient,” Decker said, “but it will be once GDOT does the project. (Otherwise) the downtown central business district works really well. We’re blessed because we don’t have major traffic issues like Atlanta does.”