Ramblings: Detours for Wasena Bridge Cause Concern; Council Lobbied on Gaza Ceasefire; School Board Finalists Compete

What are Ramblings? Ramblings are a collection of short items that have caught our attention for one reason or another.

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Attendees of the Wasena Bridge Bonanza on April 13, 2024 take in one last view from the Wasena Bridge before its closed the following week. Street and greenway detours have caused consternation among nearby residents. PHOTO BY HENRI GENDREAU FOR THE ROANOKE RAMBLER

Residents decry Wasena Bridge detours

Drivers inconvenienced by the closure of the Wasena Bridge are speeding through neighborhood streets, causing property damages and risking injury to pedestrians, residents say.

The $50-million replacement project for the bridge connecting Old Southwest and downtown to Wasena has also caused consternation among nearby residents for a detour of the greenway.

“We are very concerned that the detour plan as it currently exists is insufficient and exposes the most vulnerable users to extremely dangerous conditions,” Frank Maguire, Greenway Coordinator for the Roanoke Valley Greenway Commission, wrote to City Manager Bob Cowell on April 12, a week before the closure.

Michael Shasberger, who lives on Day Avenue, said residents’ parked cars have been dinged by passing traffic and large trucks have blocked the road as they navigate the narrow street.

“I have personally almost been hit three times while crossing at a stop sign [by] people who just blow right through the stop signs at high rates of speed,” another resident said.

City officials responded Monday by saying that they’ve ordered a half dozen new signs to clarify the official detour route.

“That has reduced the traffic flow significantly,” Ross Campbell, the city’s public works director, said. “We do have concerns that we still have folks that are traveling through the neighborhood that are using that as an alternate route.”

As such, the city has also purchased 14 “local-traffic only” signs that it intends to install at intersections throughout the Old Southwest neighborhood. The city also moved a road closure barrier on Elm Avenue to 5th Street to discourage traffic from going through the residential area.

Cowell noted police can’t enforce violations of the local-traffic sign guidance.

“In traffic engineering, we have a saying: ‘Ants will find their way,’” Campbell said. “As you have maybe dealt with the ants in your home, from time to time, you’ve got to kind of attack them as they find different ways into your house.”

Cowell also said the city worked for more than a year with residents, business owners and greenway users on the detour of the pedestrian and cycling path.

“What was arrived at was a compromise; we know that,” Cowell said. “It’s not perfect for everybody in every situation.”

Greenway advocates say they want to see on-street parking eliminated on some of the street detours to allow for a dedicated greenway lane that will be protected from traffic by barriers, such as along 9th Street Southeast. Neighborhood residents and businesses previously rejected getting rid of parking, Cowell said.

“But ultimately if that’s the desire, for us to kind of tip the scales toward, if you will, a segregated or separated greenway, we certainly can,” he said. “Just understand it’s going to come with those [extended] conversations … and those other trade-offs.”

Mayor Sherman Lea commended city staff for what they’ve accomplished thus far.

“I want to just advise citizens that it's a work in progress,” Lea said. “We want to make sure, first of all, that it’s safe, but there’s going to be inconveniences. There’s going to be a lot of traffic.”

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Council urged to call for Gaza ceasefire

Some Roanoke residents are urging City Council to adopt a local resolution calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire of violence in Palestine and Israel.

“Calling for a peaceful resolution protects us all by sending a clear message that antisemitism, Islamophobia and racism will not be tolerated in our community,” Mary Frazier said.

A handful of residents held signs saying “Resolution for Ceasefire Now” and one held a Palestinian flag as Frazier spoke. Israeli forces have killed more than 34,000 people in Gaza, including many children, following the Oct. 7 attack on Israel when Hamas killed about 1,200 people.

Frazier said a local resolution calling for the release of hostages and permanent end to the killing would send a message to state and federal representatives. In recent months, Harrisonburg and Charlottesville have passed similar measures.

An online petition from the Southwest Virginia Coalition for Palestine makes a similar call to Roanoke City Council, and had garnered 272 signatures as of Tuesday.

Vice Mayor Joe Cobb said Frazier provided a template for a resolution that he would share with Council members.

“If we have consensus to bring that forward, we can do that,” Cobb said.

City Attorney Tim Spencer said if Roanoke were to adopt such a measure, it would be the third city in Virginia to do so.

School board candidates make their pitch

Roanoke elected leaders on Monday interviewed five candidates vying for three spots on the city’s school board.

Incumbent Michael Cherry II as well as Keri Garnett, David Howell, Auraliz “Liz” Quintana and Deidre Trigg made their case to City Council, which appoints members to the school board overseeing 13,000 children and a budget of more than $250 million.

Two other finalists — Milton Hardy Jr. and Siclinda Canty-Elliott — withdrew their names from consideration, according to Councilwoman Trish White-Boyd.

She said Council will decide June 3 who will take on a three-year position that begins July 1. Incumbent Mark Cathey is term-limited and incumbent Diane Casola isn’t seeking reappointment.

Cherry, who was appointed in 2021, manages medical coders for Optum Health, and pastors at Altha Grove Baptist Church in Forest.

“This city has given me a chance,” said Cherry, who has noted he failed grades and graduated with a 1.9 GPA but has turned his life around. “The same chance I was afforded in this city to make something of myself, I want to give the same opportunity to a child.”

He cited ongoing issues with late school buses and increasing student voices in the school system as major challenges.

Garnett, executive director and CEO of Junior Achievement of SWVA, said she has two children in the school district.

“I was what was considered an at-risk youth … living in poverty, a teenage mom,” she said. “I felt like I did not have a voice at that time.”

Garnett said experiential learning is important now, particularly to teach children social skills. Safety is a major challenge, and she said the district needs to listen to parental concerns, and possibly launch a campaign aimed at preventing harm related to guns and social media.

Howell recently retired from Ferrum College as a dean and professor of religion.

“It’s an opportunity for me to give back to the community,” he said. “Given the culture wars that involve our schools I just think it’s really important right now that we have a strong school board.”

Chronic absenteeism, which has skyrocketed since Covid-era lockdowns, as well as violence are major challenges and interrelated to other issues, Howell said. Those problems go back to parental and community involvement, he said, adding, “I think there’s been a denigration of education in some quarters.”

A youth development supervisor for the city, Quintana said her answer to why she wants to serve is the same as when she was interviewed last year but did not get a spot.

“There needs to be representation of the Hispanic community,” she said. “It is the largest growing immigrant community in the city. I am very passionate about that.”

She cited bus issues and communication to the Hispanic community as two major challenges facing the district. “We get daily texts for buses not working, but none of those texts are in Spanish or they don’t say a solution,” Quintana said.

Trigg said she would bring her experience as a parent, product of the local school district and former Roanoke educator and coach to the position.

“I do believe that our teachers have it the roughest,” Trigg said. “Their hands are tied.”

She said the district needs to trust its teachers and parents need to be more hands-on in addressing behavioral issues, which have escalated since the pandemic. Trigg sees an imbalance in which neighborhood kids live and where they go to school and expressed the desire for a more diverse spread.

“At the end of the day, the behavior issues are the hugest issues, because you have principals and teachers having to handle conduct,” she said, “versus being able to handle what's going to be on the SOLs, what’s going to be on the next test, being able to actually teach the class, having that extra time to have fun in the class.”

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