Teen-agers gain attention in efforts to have U.S. 61 widened

Saturday, September 1, 2001

CANTON, Mo. -- When ambulance sirens sound on U.S. Highway 61 near this quiet northeast Missouri town, the community braces itself, fearing the worst.

"When we hear the sirens, the whole town freezes. You start counting people," said college sophomore Lindsay Gaither, 19.

To reach the highway, the town's emergency vehicles must hurry past three houses on White Street where families lost children in less than two years, and the cemetery where the three teen-agers are buried. In stores and downtown after an accident, people ask if there were any fatalities, if anyone knows who may have died.

The town of about 2,500 residents is just off of U.S. 61, the 526-mile Avenue of the Saints stretching from St. Louis to St. Paul, Minn.

Near Canton, the road switches from a four-lane highway with a median into a two-lane road for about 31 miles. Only a painted line separates oncoming traffic, and here the road is known by another name -- Death Alley.

Getting SMART

Since 1980, 36 people have died along the two-lane stretch, with 15 fatalities since 1998. Spurred on a classmate's death, a group of Canton High School students last year decided enough was enough.

They began with a petition and just kept fighting to be heard, all the way to the state and federal government.

With a bake sale, car washes and corporate sponsors, they raised enough money for 10 students to lobby in Washington D.C., in July. In Jefferson City, they're so well known Gov. Bob Holden calls them by their first names.

The group, called Students of Missouri Assisting Rural and Urban Transportation (SMART), formed the day after senior Kristin Hendrickson died on March 22, 2000.

Hendrickson was driving home from work at a music store in Quincy, Ill., shortly after 9 p.m. A pickup truck heading south tried to pass a tractor-trailer and crossed into oncoming Hendrickson's path. With nowhere to go, Hendrickson's car was struck head-on and thrown into a ditch.

The pickup truck's driver was convicted of vehicular manslaughter. But students were certain that if the road had four lanes, the driver could have safely passed.

The student group -- working with two advisers including Canton Fire Chief Jeff McReynolds, also the president of the 61 Corridor Coalition -- were first told much of the highway couldn't undergo construction until 2020. That's a long time, they noted, especially to people who aren't even 20 years old yet.

Student achievements

They made a video. They spoke before the state's transportation officials. They visited with their representatives and senators. And they started accomplishing things.

In October, Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., helped secure $4 million in federal funding to upgrade U.S. 61. In January, the state's transportation commission endorsed a plan to spend $22.5 to upgrade 10.6 miles between Canton and nearby La Grange. Holden spoke about the SMART group in his State of the State address; the students got a standing ovation from lawmakers.

In Washington this summer, the group began talking to politicians about the $6.75 million needed to buy right-of-ways to change the remaining 14 miles to the Iowa border into a four-lane road.

Then a few weeks ago, tragedy struck again. Two students, Darrin Cale, 17, and Adam Martin, 19, died at the scene of another accident on the highway. In a fierce storm, Cale lost control of his car and slid sideways into the path of a tractor-trailer.

The truck driver was charged with methamphetamine possession. The highway patrol said there was nothing at the crash scene that indicated wrongdoing by the driver.

The accident again devastated Canton.

It's not the kind of small town where people just leave their doors unlocked -- it's a place where people also leave the car running with the keys in the ignition while they run to do an errand, McReynolds said.

SMART's latest effort calls for converting all lanes to four by September 2004.

The Missouri Department of Transportation is working to improve parts of the highway.

"We definitely see it as a need. Unfortunately, we don't have all the resources we need for projects," said Kevin Fuller, assistant district engineer. He said the road is not one of Missouri's worst when it comes to accident rates.

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