CUMBERLAND, Md. — Fiona Myers sensed danger and tried to block her walking companion from entering the pedestrian underpass at Queen City Drive and Baltimore Avenue.
The tunnel, which for years has been filthy, wet and unsafe, is beneath the railroad tracks where CSX trains have been known to park and block the crossing for indefinite periods of time.
Despite the fact that the underpass is by all accounts disgusting and scary, it is the only way for pedestrians at the intersection to cross between the city’s east side and downtown when a train is on the track.
That forces many people, and others, to travel through it.
“Fiona is a trained guide dog,” Chris Myers said of his 5-year-old “yellow lab” that wanted to avoid the underpass. “I’m legally blind.”
Myers, 45, who lives downtown where he works at WCBC radio and owns the Craft Table at 11 South Liberty St., said Fiona has a 10-foot safety zone around the two of them when they walk.
“She guides me around obstacles,” he said. “She’s great. She’s awesome.”
Myers, president of the National Federation of the Blind’s Western Maryland chapter that covers Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties, retired a few years ago from his job with the federal government as a telecommunications specialist.
“Cumberland is very walker friendly,” he said of the area’s layout. “I love it. We pretty much walk everywhere.”
However, he and Fiona have encountered dangerous spots, including intersections that don’t have audible pedestrian crossing signals.
He talked of the lack of signaling at the intersection of Greene, Washington, Cumberland and Baltimore streets below the hill from Emmanuel Episcopal Church.
“It’s difficult to cross there,” Myers said and added that the area near George Washington Headquarters, as well as Greene and Lee streets near Sheetz, and the intersection of Baltimore and Mechanic streets are also difficult places for pedestrians to navigate.
“I was hit twice in Cumberland,” he said of traffic that didn’t yield to pedestrian rights-of-way.
Recently, a driver “ran over my right foot and continued on,” Myers said.
At that time, he was wearing a body camera, which captured the incident.
He reported the incident to police, but no one has been apprehended, he said.
A couple of years ago along Greene Street, a large delivery truck hit him and afterward the driver said, “I had my turn signal on,” Myers said.
While he wasn’t seriously injured in those accidents, and Fiona was not hurt, some guide dogs suffer severe emotional trauma and can’t work after their owners are hit by a car, Myers said.
Janet Wunderlick and her husband live at Prospect Square and own a building at the intersection of Mechanic and Baltimore streets.
“I’m back and forth a lot … my husband, too,” she said. “It’s an area I’m very concerned with.”
Drivers “don’t look carefully for pedestrians,” Wunderlick said.
“There are a lot of people walking in Cumberland,” she said. “Vehicular traffic seems to have a right-of-way over pedestrian traffic. You feel unsafe.”
Additionally, the crosswalk button at the intersection functions poorly, Wunderlick said.
“The wait for that to be engaged is way too long,” she said. “And it doesn’t have an audio tone.”
Wunderlick talked of rolling right turns in the city that “really need to be amended because of the volume of traffic.”
The cost to make the city safer for pedestrians is “minor money” compared to many other Cumberland projects, she said.
Gov. Larry Hogan recently designated October as “Walktober” in recognition of Maryland’s official exercise — walking — for its health, recreation and transportation benefits.
The Hogan administration works with the Maryland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and other partners to raise awareness of pedestrian safety and accessibility.
Maryland has more than 1,200 miles of trails on state public lands, and $16.8 million in grants is available to advance 42 bike and pedestrian projects across the state.
Such funds could be used to improve sidewalks, as well as make area bridges accessible, to allow pedestrian traffic for folks including senior citizens, parents with baby strollers and disabled people, Cumberland resident Terry Murphy said.
“There’s a built-in inequity for those people,” she said.
Murphy talked of tree roots that have grown beneath and into sidewalks that created bumps and bulges, which force folks to walk in the street in her historic Washington Street neighborhood.
“It’s a serious hazard,” she said.
While homeowners are responsible for maintenance of the sidewalks, the city, in conjunction with the Department of Natural Resources, has power over the trees.
“It becomes really complicated,” Murphy said and added that homeowners, city officials and DNR must work together to find a solution that could include improving the sidewalk around one tree at a time “and keep working on that until we’ve got it under control.”
Additionally, lighting in the area is poor and creates a double hazard for pedestrians at night.
Murphy talked of Cumberland’s rich history, fascinating people and beautiful architecture.
Good walkability in and around the downtown area “leads to better economics,” she said.
Cumberland resident Gary Klatt, 73, has walked in many areas of the city.
“Some of the sidewalks are terrible,” he said.
“I have no sight … I have landmarks that I use,” Klatt said of feeling for objects such as railings to help him understand his location. “I also (listen to) traffic to tell me if I’m going the right way.”
He said he avoids the intersection of Industrial Boulevard and Virginia Avenue because “the traffic is terrible.”
Klatt said another problem for pedestrians is that during the winter, many sidewalks are not shoveled, and crosswalks are blocked by snow.
The National Federation of the Blind celebrates White Cane Awareness Day every year on Oct. 15.
“For blind people, the white cane is an essential tool that gives us the ability to achieve a full and independent life. It allows us to move freely and safely from place to place — whether it’s at work, at school, or around our neighborhoods,” the organization’s website states.
“We use our senses of hearing and touch to explore and understand the world around us,” it states. “The white cane, in effect, makes our hands and arms longer, so that we can assess the situation, and move quickly and confidently. The white cane allows us to avoid obstacles, find steps and curbs, locate and step over cracks or uneven places in the sidewalk, find doorways, get into cars and buses, and much more.”
The city of Cumberland recently issued a proclamation for White Cane Awareness Day.
The document states that the white cane “demonstrates and symbolizes the ability to achieve a full and independent life, and the capacity to work productively in competitive employment,” and allows “every blind person to move freely and safely from place to place.”
Every citizen “should be aware that the law requires that motorists and cyclists exercise appropriate caution when approaching a blind person carrying a white cane,” it states.
Learn more at nfb.org.