Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Pile up plagues Academy Street twice daily

By the time the bell rings at SilverBeach Elementary minivans span the length of Academy Street. Parents waiting to pick up their children find themselves parked on the side of the narrow road, waiting for up to a half an hour on the crowded, dead-end street.

The pile up develops on Academy Street one afternoon
Photo by Mikey Jane Moran
Though this problem has been going on for over 10 years according to Silver Beach parents, nothing has been done by the city or the school district to alleviate congestion around the start of school at 8:30 a.m. or at 3 p.m. when school gets out.

Traffic back ups have become unbearable for Silver Beach parents like John Everett. Though there have been no reported accidents, Everett says he has witnessed plenty of “close calls” and as part of the Silver Beach Neighborhood Association he hopes to call attention to traffic problems.

I have nearly been hit on a number of occasions, and I'm fairly big and noticeable. A smaller kid who's not watching the drivers would be in trouble,” Everett said. “Is it going to take someone getting hurt or killed?”

Everett said he is gathering more information about traffic grievances from parents and he eventually plans to petition the city to improve Academy Street.

But the city has no intention of making improvements to the street according to Chris Comeau, transportation planner for Cityof Bellingham Public Works. Comeau said crowded streets actually lead to safer driving.

“In reality, narrower streets have a tendency to lower vehicle speeds because drivers are forced to pay more attention to the road in front of them,” Comeau said. “Widening streets tends to have the opposite effect, costs a lot of money, and is very undesirable in school zones where children are present.”

Taking to the streets
Instead of widening the road, Comeau said the city is working with the Bellingham School District, Silver Beach Elementary, and residents of the Silver Beach neighborhood to encourage children to walk or ride their bikes to school.

Comeau said a 900-foot-long strip of Academy Street has been chosen for sidewalk improvements by Bellingham's Draft Pedestrian Master Plan, which works to make the community a safer place to walk. The choice is in support of Safe Routes to Schools, a national organization designed to make it easier and safer for students to walk and bike to school.

In a letter he wrote school principal Nicole Tally, Everett said the crowed streets are actually a deterrent for walking to school and parents often prefer to take their children to school themselves, saving them the hassle of waiting for a bus.

“This saves them from having staggered exit times at home, avoids kids waiting in nasty weather for a bus, and shortens the morning routine,” Everett explained. “The half an hour or more of extra sleep can be considerable.”

And even retrofitting the existing sidewalk will not come cheap. Considering what it will cost to put in storm drains and limit runoff, Comeau estimates the city will pay between $500,000 and $855,000 for a new sidewalk.

According to municipalcode, residential streets in the Lake Whatcom Watershed should be 18 feet wide with one sidewalk at least 5 feet wide. The 20-foot-wide Academy Street currently meets these specifications.

If the street were to be modified, on top of extraordinary costs Comeau said, “any new asphalt or concrete added for either street widening or sidewalks is added impervious surface, which must be detained and treated to a very high storm water standard” in order to protect Lake Whatcom from pollution.
Comeau said additional changes to the area are unlikely.

Life in the slow lane
Yet Silver Beach residents remain concerned with the traffic. A survey concerning pedestrian safety distributed by the city in the summer of 2011 revealed Silver Beach residents are worried about “terrible traffic conditions before and after school” on Academy Street. But some parents would argue this does not begin to cover the issue.

For nearly 15 minutes twice a day the street becomes a deadlock. Some parents said they have to arrive up to a half an hour early to drop their children off in time for school.

Until this year the school released on a staggered schedule to reduce traffic but it had to switch to one release time to cut the cost of buses and to provide teachers with more planning time.

However, Kelly Hollingsworth, the father of a first-grader, a third-grader and other students since grown, has been coming up to the school for about 16 years and said that it has always been like this. He thinks it is time for a real change.

“It will be difficult,” Hollingsworth said. “I don't know what the real answer is but something has to be done.”

Cars parked in no parking zones
Photo courtesy John Everett 
As the children spill out of the school, three cars try to squeeze into a road hardly big enough for two cars to pass as parents and buses come and go. Neighbors have lined their properties with orange cones to prevent cars from driving over their yards, yet the neighborhood is still full of muddy corners of tire tracked grass.

Trying to navigate the traffic can be a challenge so cars often park in no parking zones and in crosswalks, making the roads even narrower.

“I usually get mad and have to tell myself it's not worth it,” said Hollingsworth.

Linda Pierce, office assistant at Silver Beach Elementary, leaves her desk in the afternoon to monitor traffic and direct parents.

She has witnessed one or two side swipe accidents in the past few years, incidences she links with the width of the road.

Pierce also said there is no chance for anyone to get into the area around 3 p.m. Residents with meetings at the school, children with extra-curricular activities or people who live in the neighborhood can't get up the street until traffic clears.

Silver Beach parent Everett lives across the street form the school and said someone blocked his drive way, preventing his wife from leaving their home. Everett also said he has had to wait 10 to 15 minutes in the pile up just to get to his house.

Everett says this proposes a particular safety hazard considering emergency vehicles may be unable to reach residences or the school during high traffic periods.

Man on a mission
Everett is planning on distributing a survey to parents as they wait in the line in the morning and collecting it in the afternoon to allow people to express their concerns about the traffic.

“I have nothing written out, but would ask sort of open-ended questions like, 'I would have my child ride the bus if...', or 'We don't walk to school because...", thus giving the parents an honest and anonymous way to respond, in hopes of receiving the most accurate, if not blunt, response as possible,” Everett said in his letter to the principal. “If there is a common thread, we can address that.”

Everett said he hopes to keep costs low, using labor donated in by neighbors and maybe even a fundraiser. Though he hopes to eventually submit a plan to the school board and city planning, he realizes this will be no easy feat.

“I think it will take some 'rule bending' to get whatever proposals are made into a working solution,” Everett said. “There is large amount of red tape to cut through.”

A solution may be far off, but a consensus continues to grow in the community: residents think the layout of Academy Street is anything but smart. 

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