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Getting schooled on traffic jams

When school lets out, parents jam roads, driveways and parking lots

POSTED: May 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS The Times/

Cars back up on Rilla Road near North Hall Middle and North Hall High schools shortly after the end of the school day. Traffic making a left turn from Rilla Road has a difficult time with the heavy traffic on Mount Vernon Road during that time of day.

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GAINESVILLE - Seventy-five minutes before the final bell rings, the first cars start showing up in the student pick-up lane at the entrance to Davis Middle School in South Hall.

By the time students start pouring out the school, the pick-up lane has evolved into a string of cars backing down the long driveway and spilling out in both directions on what soon becomes the bus-and-car-clogged Atlanta Highway.

Got a suggestion for easing the traffic? Principal Eddie Millwood wants to hear from you. "I'm really not sure what our options are," he said. "We can't limit the number of car riders ... and we can't change the release times."

Davis, one of the fastest-growing schools in the area, with 10 portable classrooms in its backyard, isn't alone in its pain.

Schools in the Gainesville and Hall County systems are struggling with traffic snags in and around their campuses at student drop-off and pick-up times.

Growth is a major factor, and that affects schools in two ways. More students are filling the schools and more motorists are occupying the roads leading to and from the schools.

In the meantime, roads aren't necessarily getting wider to accommodate more cars. A prime example of infrastructure not keeping pace with the numbers can be found in North Hall, where North Hall Middle, North Hall High and Mount Vernon Elementary Schools are within close distance of each other. The schools are growing but not Mount Vernon and Jim Hood roads.

At one point on a recent afternoon, the "car riders" line at Mount Vernon Elementary had lines forming in both directions on Jim Hood, with a wait time of 50 minutes or longer, depending on the weather and other factors. The shoulders of Jim Hood were worn by drivers parking their cars to walk to the school to pick up their children.

To ease the problem, the county system ended up spending between $80,000 and $100,000 from its 1-cent sales tax fund to add a parking lot and a new entrance off Jim Hood Road.

The situation today is "much better," principal Wayne Colston said.

"(The improvements have) gotten traffic off Jim Hood Road from Cleveland Highway. (There is) still a slight delay from Mount Vernon Road, but we have between 200 and 300 cars daily."

The school system now is considering adding a left-turn lane on Rilla Road at Mount Vernon. But why are there so many car riders in the first place?

Riding the school bus is free and, for parents, would mean less time idling in a long car line and using up expensive gas. Plus, parents probably could find a more comfortable spot to read a book or take a power nap.

School officials acknowledge a socioeconomic divide on the issue. At schools where both parents are more apt to work, the car lanes are shorter.

Millwood noticed that was the case when he was principal at East Hall Middle, a school that receives federal money because of its high poverty rate.

Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County schools, said, "We have some schools that face larger (traffic) challenges than others."

And then there's the fear of putting young students -- such as sixth-graders -- on a bus potentially with high school seniors.

"If you have a middle-schooler, you know that's not exactly the way you'd prefer it," said Shelley Shope, who heads the North Hall Middle School Council.

Shope said letters have been written to the Hall County Board of Commissioners and Hall County Board of Education seeking improvements.

"Our roads in that area have been there for many, many years and have been the same, but our population has definitely increased," said Shope, mother of a student at North Hall Middle and Mount Vernon Elementary.

"... We just have a lot of transportation going on in that little corner."

Traffic jams most recently have been an issue at Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy.
Concerned about pedestrian traffic mixing with bus traffic, the school closed the front parking lot to buses only last year.

Parents complained that the move created a larger mess, with huge backups on Enota Avenue and parents parking wherever they could find a space to bring their children into the school, a popular routine at Enota.

Earlier this month, school officials made some changes to help correct the problem, including designated parking areas for staff and parents and a marked drop-off and pick-up zone.

Keith Vincent, the district's maintenance and transportation director, told the Gainesville City Board of Education Monday night that the wait time for motorists traveling from Riverside Drive to the school is now about two minutes, and travel through the school during those busy times is another two minutes.

The board, mulling a possible pedestrian crosswalk in front of the school, decided to hold off until May on that plan to see how the traffic changes will work.

A group of bus drivers wearing badges that said "Bus Drivers Care" also showed at the meeting, handing board members a letter that addressed traffic and safety concerns at Enota.

"When the children are loading and unloading from the bus, we truly appreciate the efforts of the teachers and administration at all schools that keep the car traffic separate from the bus traffic," the letter stated.

Elsewhere in the district, city crews plan to embark on a $20,000 project this spring to widen Touchdown Drive at Century Place, to ease traffic particularly headed to Centennial Arts Academy.
At peak times, traffic backs up on Touchdown, a short connector between Century Place and the four-lane Pearl Nix Parkway, and spills over onto Pearl Nix.

Backups also were a threat last year on busy and construction-riddled Winder Highway at Chestnut Mountain Elementary School in South Hall.

Road crews spent last summer creating a new entrance to the school and a new road around it to help with car traffic.

The project took off when the state bought right of way from the county system to widen Winder Highway in front of the school. The school system used those proceeds, or about $550,000, for the new car-rider lane. There was another side benefit from the work: a 30-space parking lot.

No other projects are in the pipeline to help directly with school traffic, although new schools are being planned that indirectly could ease the problem.

Hall County is building a new school off Spout Springs Road that could serve either as a middle/high school or a school housing 10th through 12th grades. In the latter scenario, Davis would house sixth and seventh grades and the current Flowery Branch High School would house eighth and ninth grades.

School officials say they hope to decide which route to take in September. Either way, booming Davis Middle and Flowery Branch High could see relief when the new school opens in the fall of 2009.

In the meantime, Davis is having to make adjustments to accommodate the crowds. School dances will be affected, said Kurt Hansen, the PTO president.

"Our last dance included all students and we had a lot of feedback from parents and residents about how severe the problem was," he said. "As a result, we have scheduled two dances this spring held on consecutive days."

Hansen added that he believes the new school "will have a positive impact on traffic congestion at Davis."



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