Police chief: LB school traffic ‘a recipe for disaster’

The second day of the 2013-2014 school year at Lord Baltimore Elementary School was attended by an unlikely group: representatives from the Delaware Department of Transportation, Ocean View police and state legislators. They met Sept. 4 to discuss the near standstill that occurs each morning and afternoon at LB as parents drop off and pick up their children at the school. Traffic backs up along both sides of Old School Lane and Route 26.

“Our town council gets inundated with complaints about this,” said Ocean View Police Chief Ken McLaughlin. “They are delighted with this meeting.”

Early each morning, cars line up outside of the gymnasium, around the small parking lot, and onto Old School Road in both directions. By 7:38 a.m. on Sept. 4, they backed up on eastbound Route 26, eventually filling the shoulder in a line 20 cars long.

Meanwhile, traffic on westbound Route 26 was slowed by cars hoping to turn left onto Old School Lane from Route 26. Vehicles behind them spilled over into the shoulder, trying to pass on the right side of the waiting cars.

Other vehicles — some possibly driven by staff — drove around the line of cars on Old School Road to enter the parking lot and get to work.

“They’re technically committing a traffic violation,” McLaughlin pointed out. “If you wanted to get a fire truck in right now…” He shook his head.

State Sen. Gerald Hocker, who was among the legislators checking out the situation on Sept. 2, asked if drop-off could begin earlier than the current 7:45 a.m. Newly installed Principal John Turssline said staff don’t arrive before then, but Mark Steele, IRSD assistant superintendent, said it’s possible to have a flexible schedule to allow for early staff arrival.

However, the traffic jams repeat each afternoon, when the school releases students.
The Indian River School District encourages parents to let children ride buses, and the district is required to provide bus transportation, whether it’s being used or not.

At 8 a.m., a custodian in a safety vest stopped traffic to direct school buses from Old School Lane back onto Route 26. There have been car collisions reported to date, but that remained a concern this week.

“Not yet,” said McLaughlin, noting that he has seen some close calls. “That’s why we’re here.”

“It’s a miracle,” added Charles Bireley, IRSD School Board president.

By 8:05 a.m. — five minutes after the school’s new, earlier class start time — traffic had cleared.

Talk among the officials turned to possibly making Old School Lane a one-way street, but that wasn’t a solution they preferred.

And, to complicate matters, whatever happens to address the issue needs to be decided before Route 26 becomes a major construction site, since the road is scheduled for a 4-mile roadway improvement project, beginning in October. The addition of a central turn lane is expected to help alleviate some of the congestion, but Old School Lane improvements were not included in the project’s design.

“It’s not in the scope of our project to do that,” said Tom Banez, DelDOT project manager for the Route 26 project.

Because Old School Lane was not part of the original Route 26 study, Banez said it’s too late to add it to the $38 million project.

“I think the school needs to reevaluate internal circulation, how cars enter and exit the school,” Banez said.

Huddled around a sketch of the school, the group considered letting all traffic enter at the current bus entrance, east of the school on Route 26. That would mean cars would have a more spacious waiting area that would also be on school property. Then they could loop around the school and exit on Old School Lane.

Moving cars cannot be present while buses unload students, so traffic behind school property could halt while the buses, which have limited parking, release their passengers.

Public outcry about the traffic situation at the school also increased last spring when the flashing school-zone lights were removed. During utility pole replacements, Banez said, the strings holding the lights were never replaced, but two small signs were placed at both ends of the school zone, which read, “Speed limit 20 when children are present.”

However, the second half of that instruction is in fine print, which doesn’t stand out much compared to the yellow lights overhead, which used to flash from 7:30 to 8:15 a.m. every morning.

McLaughlin said he has asked the Justice Department for clarification.

“If a child stands here, it’s 20 miles per hour,” McLaughlin said. He then stepped away from the road to show that the 35 mph speed limit might be in place with a child just a step or two away. “I can’t enforce that.”

“We’re very concerned. Ever since that light came down, nobody slows down. They can’t see,” said nearby business owner John Cordeaux. “Guys, there’s a problem here. … Somebody’s going to get hurt and, when somebody gets hurt, who are they going to point the finger at?”

Banez said the flashing lights were popular, and he could see the need to slow traffic, but that flashers wouldn’t solve all the traffic issues.

“We need to get these blinking lights back,” said Hocker.

A man walking across the street from the meeting waved and chanted, “Traffic light! Traffic light!”

Parking concerns were also raised, since the shoulders of the narrow Old School Lane often double as overflow parking during school events and concerts, when the official parking area is quickly filled. Old School Lane could possibly see improvements though a streetscape project, which Ocean View previously conducted for several sections of sidewalk. Banez suggested the Town apply to DelDOT for possible parking spaces and sidewalks. Otherwise, it might be a while before the state-controlled road sees major improvements.

“It’s a recipe for disaster, as far as I’m concerned,” said McLaughlin. “Somebody’s going to get hurt.”

Banez said DelDOT can follow-up with a meeting specifically with Lord Baltimore officials.