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Published: Saturday, 6/13/2009

Wood County community encounters bump in road


PORTAGE, Ohio - A Wood County community that for years had a reputation as a speed trap is facing a speed bump.

Its police department could be slashed with a budget-cutting knife; its only traffic light could be yanked down, and its 35 mph speed limit signs could be plucked and dumped.

Expect a packed house Monday when Portage Village Council meets in the town hall to address the hot-button topics.

"We have a huge safety issue in town," said Mayor Mark Wolford, a driving force behind a campaign to keep the traffic signal at State Rt. 25 and Main Street. He's also revving up efforts to maintain a lower speed limit in the village.

The traffic light has blinked since 1929, but now the Ohio Department of Transportation says it's no longer needed. The town is smaller. The pace slower. The people fewer.

That tiny-town reality is connected to the speed limit issue: Portage's business district has been shrinking, and it is just shy of frontage rules for a 25 mph speed limit. To further complicate matters, ODOT contends the town's 35 mph speed limit in its residential district never has been a legally enforceable speed.

The town no longer enforces the posted 35 mph speed limit, the mayor said yesterday, and he said a motorist could contest a ticket issued for exceeding the 25 mph speed limit. If someone contests the 25 mph limit, "it would be up to the village to prove it is a safe and adequate speed," he said.

But changes will be made, he said, to make sure the posted speed limits comply with state law.

To keep the lower numbers on the signs, Portage would have to prove to ODOT that those limits are necessary. That could mean a traffic study the people of Portage can't afford, the mayor said.

Safety along the state route is critical to the community. "Basically that is our Main Street," he said.

Theresa Pollick, ODOT spokesman, said yesterday the village's 25 mph and 35 mph posted speed limits along portions of Route

25 are not in compliance with the Ohio Revised Code, and as a result, the town cannot legally enforce those limits.

The village has known about the issues with the posted speeds since about 2006, when a review showed the business district area no longer warranted the lower limit.

Christopher Waterfield, district traffic engineer for ODOT, said yesterday the 35 mph speed limit never was in compliance. Of the speeds posted in the town, the 50 mph northbound and southbound on the state route are legal, he said. After studies this spring, ODOT made its recommendation to remove the traffic signal and adjust speed limits to include 40 mph for portions of Route 25 in the town.

Mr. Wolford said he wouldn't fight the 40 mph speed limit, providing ODOT would let the town keep the traffic signal. He'd prefer 35 mph, however.

ODOT is trying its best to cooperate with village officials and assist them in this issue, Ms. Pollick said.

The village can comply with the speed limits outlined in the Ohio Revised Code or seek ODOT's approval to set different limits.

Violators are cited into the Portage Mayor's Court that is in session twice a month with about 12 cases - mainly seat belt law violations with some speeding violations - per session.

In 1976, the town bought a police radar unit to clock speeds and set up a mayor's court to levy fines. By 1996, Portage was listed in the online Speedtrap Registry as one of the roadway nooks and crannies where police could be waiting to nab unsuspecting, speeding motorists.

The speed trap label has shrunk with the town - not as many motorists, speeding or not, pass through the once bustling Portage. Population has dwindled through the years to an estimated 428.

The town has other issues, too, piled on its plate.

In April Portage became the first Ohio community this year to enter fiscal emergency status after Ohio Auditor Mary Taylor announced that the village's negative fund balance, as revealed in a financial analysis by the state, prompted her to declare the emergency.

Council will talk about cost-cutting options in the seven-member police department as officials look at ways to reduce expenses. Options include reducing police officers' hours and contracting with the Wood County sheriff for minimum or extended coverage.

Police Chief Bob Bartz said "the crime rate is next to nil" in Portage, but the officers handle a lot of traffic-related cases.

Residents are concerned more motorists would speed through town if the traffic light is removed.

Mayor Wolford, who is encouraging residents to attend Monday's meeting and voice their concerns, said he collected 200 signatures of concerned residents who want the light to stay put.

ODOT has not given the town a deadline to remove the light, and the mayor is trying to buy some time as he meets with county and state officials to get their support to keep the signal.

The mayor would like another traffic study done, this time in the summer.

Fatal crashes, he said, occurred at the intersection "before we had a police department to help monitor that light. Both of those accidents involved someone who ran the red light."

ODOT studied the speed limit and traffic signal situations after receiving a request from Village Administrator Ron Sharp who asked for information about the legally enforceable speed limits along State Rt. 25 within the village and information about the signal warrants for the traffic signal, said Ms. Pollick.

Chief Bartz recommends the traffic signal remain in place. "I think the light is a necessity for the safety of the people of the village and anyone traveling through the village. It helps regulate the speed," he said.

Contact Janet Romaker at:

jromaker@theblade.com or


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