WTVM Investigates: District 4 councilwoman fights to improve Steam Mill Rd. after deadly hit-and-run

Published: Jul. 14, 2023 at 11:55 AM EDT
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COLUMBUS, Ga. (WTVM) - A News Leader 9 investigation into the deadly Steam Mill Road hit and run in Columbus last fall.

The councilwoman who represents the district is fighting for faster change.

But even with her best efforts it could take years to fix this problem road.

One dead. One seriously injured. Two children - a sister and a brother - walking to school on October 6th of 2022. They met that fate after they were hit by a pickup truck on Columbus’ Steam Mill Road.

The city of Columbus has been talking about improving the roadway for years - but even still - it may be 2025 before the construction project even *begins*.

Did the slow turning wheels of government fail this family?

Jalyn English was 13 when she died. Her January birthday passes. Holidays pass. General, at random times, pass when her family is overcome by the trauma of her loss. The memories of this daughter, a sister, a 13-year-old girl live through them.

We asked her mother if she would do an interview with us, Nicole English-Pugh telling us the pain of losing her child was too much, and she wouldn’t be able to talk to us on camera.

She did say over the phone her other children have had swings of emotions. “They looked up to her, they did everything together.”

The family goes to the cemetery on days like Jalyn’s birthday - singing to her. Her brother survived - and he lives now with the aftermath of a traumatic brain injury.

The two were hit by a truck - while walking to school - and the truck left the scene. Jalyn’s mother told us about the raw pain of knowing her daughter died while that truck drove away.

29-year-old Deantre Wolfe said in court that it was an accident and he didn’t realize he hit the children and turned himself in when he saw his truck in reports.

The court system will decide what lies ahead for Wolfe.

The city will decide what lies ahead for Steam Mill Road - a roadway in the city that is heavily traveled by pedestrians and vehicles -and has been deemed an unsafe corridor.

Councilwoman Toyia Tucker represents the disrict where Steam Mill Road is located.

“It’s one of the most unsafest corridors per a study we did. So when I first got in office we did a study on Steam Mill Road,” said city councilwoman Toyia Tucker. “This was prior to the T-SPLOST being approved. Once we captured that data I was able to, in a way, advocate for that corridor.”

The area features sidewalks on just one side of the roadway - the other side forces a person to walk in the lane of traffic.

”2017 I mentioned there was a young man, and I say young man, a teenager, 17-years-old, that was a Kendrick graduate. He was hit and killed,” said Tucker. ”It really is a dangerous corridor and not just pedestrians getting hit. We’ve had major accidents where individuals have died in some of those accidents.”

City leaders quickly discussed the improvement plans the week after the deadly hit and run - but until that point was it a high priority project?

Based on an open records request filed by WTVM News Leader 9 Investigates - the answer would be “no.”

The city asked citizens to rank projects for the $400 million special local option sales tax - or SPLOST - and for road projects - the citizens who spoke up in the survey ranked the Steam Mill project 20th out of 21 total.

There *is* activity on Steam Mill Road. Survey crews have been marking underground utilities - a sure sign that construction is happening in the not so distant future.

“The area near the school, Dimon Elementary, will be the first area that gets done,” said Tucker. “So, normally you would start at the beginning of the corridor, which is coming off of Buena Vista Road all the way to Dirk. This time we’re starting right where the incident occurred.”

Many would be pleased to see images like this - police officers running radar during school zone hours - patrolling the area for speeders who endanger children.

A dedicated crossing guard works the intersection near where Jalyn died and she has a big presence - watch her chastise this Columbus Water Works truck for speeding in the school zone.

News Leader 9 Investigates set out to see how big of a problem it is with our own radar gun and while we didn’t catch the speed of that water works truck, we did catch a good radar reading on other vehicles.

Here’s a glimpse of what our radar gun caught in the 25 mile per hour school zone morning commute.

39 in a 25 - 14 miles over the speed limit in the school zone.

Another time, not during school zone traffic. Take a look - the normal speed limit is 35.

We saw a number of drivers approaching 50 miles per hour down the tight Steam Mill Road corridor.

The road is unsafe - speeding is a problem - a June city council meeting updated the project and the City Manager Isaiah Hugley talked about the safety issue.

“Maybe I’ve started to drive slower, but yesterday twice on Steam Mill Road, I had cars go around me on the double lines. I was going to ask, the speed limit is 35, during construction can we lower or double the fine in a construction zone? Lower the speed limit and then you know they have double fines on interstates if you’re speeding in a construction zone,” said Isaiah Hugley. “I was going to ask staff if we could lower the speed limit because there’s construction everywhere out there. These people are walking along the street out there every day putting these pink flags out. So lower the speed limit and double fines.”

Deputy City Manager Pam Hodge gave an update on the project - one that *might* be completed within a decade after being deemed “unsafe”.

“Steam Mill Road… the design has been authorized. That one is moving forward,” said Pam Hodge. “We meet with the consultants every few weeks and talk about the design. They’ve been out there surveying along Steam Mill Road so that definitely is moving forward.”

But between now and then, how will the city protect the walking children and change dangerous speeding behavior?

Councilwoman Tucker also told us that in a week long effort by Columbus police back in the month of March, they made 37 traffic stops on Steam Mill Road for speeding.

The road is just over two miles in length.