Even before a teenager died last week along Highway 370 near Gretna, neighbors and drivers who use the intersection say the state needed to do more to improve safety in the area.
The death of 15-year-old Nate LaFave in a traffic accident Friday ramped up concerns over the 180th Street intersection with Highway 370.
Traffic skyrockets each fall at the intersection, when drivers head south on 180th to Vala's Pumpkin Patch. And now the highway has been expanded to four lanes.
Since the accident, Sarpy County Board Chairman Jim Warren said he and County Engineer Dennis Wilson have asked the Nebraska Department of Roads to look into installing lights at the intersection.
The Roads Department has final say because Highway 370 is a state highway. But the state says the intersection doesn't meet qualifications for a traffic signal that would stop east-west traffic.
Warren said the state has indicated that it won't do a new traffic study until Vala's traffic has died down and until the highway construction project is done. The state says it's simply waiting for the construction project to be completed.
People who frequent the area say now is the time to improve the intersection. Orange construction cones still line much of the years-long widening project along Highway 370, which is now scheduled to wrap up by the end of the month.
Pat Lichter, a board member for the nearby Tiburon subdivision, has lived in the area for about 16 years. Lichter said a traffic signal or at least blinking yellow lights there could have prevented Friday's accident.
“(The accident) is on the state for their lack of insight and lack of doing the proper thing,” he said.
The teenagers involved — driver Madeline Shely, 16, and passengers LaFave and Carly Anne Kelly, 15 — were traveling south on 180th Street toward Vala's. Their Jeep Cherokee collided with an eastbound pickup truck at the Highway 370 intersection.
LaFave, a sophomore at Mount Michael Benedictine High School, died as a result of the collision. Kelly's condition remained critical Tuesday, and Shely's condition was fair at the Nebraska Medical Center, a hospital spokesman said.
The accident is still being investigated.
Mary Jo Oie, a spokeswoman for the Roads Department, said the intersection of Highway 370 at 180th Street didn't meet the department's criteria for east- and westbound traffic signals because the area had too few accidents and too little traffic volume, among other criteria.
Stop signs are in place for north-south traffic on 180th Street.
According to 2012 numbers from the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, an average of about 13,000 vehicles per day pass through the intersection.
Friday's fatal accident is one of two accidents at that intersection since Jan. 1, according to the Sarpy County Sheriff's Office.
Vala's owner Tim Vala said some kind of traffic lights would be “well worth it” when his seasonal attraction is open for 42 days in September and October. Vala views the heavy-volume intersection as a safety concern.
Last year, the seasonal attraction in Sarpy County drew some 200,000 visitors.
Before the widening project, which was originally projected to be finished by Sept. 1, Vala asked the Department of Roads for a longer south turn lane off Highway 370 onto 180th Street. But the state built the turn lane the same size as others along the highway.
“We are extremely sad,” he said of the fatal accident. “You just hate to have something like that happen.”
Sarpy County sheriff's deputies will monitor the area closely during the last few weeks of the Vala's season, Capt. Greg London said. But the Sheriff's Office won't direct traffic at the intersection.
Ginny Bresette, who has lived north of Highway 370 along 180th Street for more than 30 years, called the intersection “a bad one.” She said her neighbors have often avoided it as it has gotten busier.
At least three of her neighbors, herself included, have been rear-ended there, she said.
“I can only imagine a young driver sitting there. She just took her opportunity to go,” she said. “It's just too sad that all the circumstances ended up in a tragedy.”
All intersections along Highway 370 will be monitored after the widening project wraps up at the end of the month, Oie said.
When the highway fully opens, the speed limit will increase to 60 mph from its current 45 mph that has been posted during construction, she said.
Changes are possible, she said, if engineers determine that additional signage or a reduction in speed is necessary.
“We build the roads to be as safe as they can,” she said. “We want everyone to be as safe as they can.”
World-Herald staff writer Cody Winchester contributed to this report.