EAGAN, Minn. — For years, the Diffley Road corridor has served 4,000 students at Northview Elementary School, Dakota Hills Middle School and Eagan High School, long becoming a source of concern for parents because of poor pedestrian access.
The morning of Nov. 1, 2019 accelerated those calls for change, when a 13-year-old budding hockey player by the name of Patric Vitek lost his life on Diffley Road. A car collided with his back bicycle tire, just moments before he was set to arrive at Dakota Hills Middle School.
The tragedy stunned the community, including Julie McMan, whose youngest child went to school with Patric.
"I feel so horrible for that family. It's not fair what happened," McMan said. "But it's not going to happen again."
McMan feels confident that similar tragedies can be prevented in the future, now that a $5 million reconstruction project of Diffley Road is largely wrapping up this week. Through a partnership with the City of Eagan, District 196 and Dakota County, crews dropped Diffley Road to one lane near the school zone, added roundabouts and implemented new pedestrian lights at crosswalks alerting cars to stop for kids biking and walking to school.
"My daughter is that next generation of kids," McMan said. "I feel really confident that she can get from our house, which is three or four miles away, to here on bike or foot, without having to worry about what other vehicles are doing, or wondering, 'Is she going to get hit?'"
At the same time, McMan and other parents are still expressing some lingering concerns about the reconfigured Diffley Road. They say it appears that at least some drivers have been having trouble adjusting to the new changes at the pedestrian crosswalks, and that backups on Diffley are still common at school pick-up hours.
Dakota County Commissioner Laurie Halverson, however, said that backups happened during the old configuration prior to construction, and that an adjustment period was anticipated.
"This is a new road, and people are going to be learning how to navigate that road," Halverson said. "The people I've talked to, particularly people who have kids walking and biking to school, are optimistic for what this is going to be in terms of safety."
Construction on the project started after last school year and continued through summer break, although public input on the safety changes started long before that.
"The project came together really quickly, and we're very pleased that it was ready to go for 'back to school,'" Halverson said. "People wanted slower speeds. We wanted the roads to be engineered for the people using it, and kids are crossing those roads."
Parents hope it's the start of a new era.
"Change had to happen," McMan said, "so that we didn't have another casualty."