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Lower Macungie official fears new traffic problems at Willow Lane Elementary

Published On: May 09 2013 11:25:47 PM EDT   Updated On: May 10 2013 06:37:01 AM EDT

Will East Penn School District’s plan to bus fewer children to Willow Lane Elementary School create a backed-up traffic mess at Mill Creek Road and the school’s rear entrance?

Despite his concern that will happen, on Thursday Lower Macungie Township commissioner James Lancsek joined fellow commissioner Douglas Brown in voting to forward the school district’s plan to create new traffic patterns at Willow Lane to all five commissioners -- with several conditions.

But Lancsek said he intends to go on the record warning his fellow commissioners of the potential traffic problem. “By the township allowing this to be approved, we’re allowing the school district to make a bad decision,” he said.

“During bad weather when nobody’s walking and all the mothers are bringing their children, this thing is going to be stacked all the way out to Mill Creek Road. That’s one of my main concerns with this plan.

“I hope I’m 100 percent wrong about queuing out into this intersection and causing problems. But if it does, and we’ve made the decision to approve this, now what do we do? Do we have the same problem as at Wescosville, where we just have to live with it?”

Lancsek said he goes by Wescosville Elementary every morning. “Brookside Road is jammed up both north and south because cars are backed all the way down Liberty Lane and no one can even get through.” He said that situation is totally unacceptable – “I’m shocked we haven’t had many complaints” – and worries the same thing will happen at Willow Lane.

Lancsek and Brown, who comprise the planning committee, are the first two township commissioners to get a look at East Penn’s plan for Willow Lane, which Lower Macungie waited two months to receive. The district did not make a summary presentation of its plan late Thursday afternoon, but it apparently is largely the same as a preliminary plan shared with the two-man planning committee in March.

To expedite traffic at the end of each school day, parents no longer will have to park their cars and go inside Willow Lane to sign out their children, according to Paul Szewczak, the district’s engineer. He said details of that plan should be finalized next week by a parents committee working with the school’s principal.

Cars will go along the back of the school than wrap around a parking lot to reach the one and only designated drop-off/pick-up lane along the gymnasium side of Willow Lane. Szewczak said that drop-off lane has room for 12 cars.

Township engineer William Erdman said parents won’t be dropping off and picking up children “on the other side of the parking lot, which everybody kind of assumed when they looked at the plan. It’s good to know that’s not happening.”

Township officials don’t expect East Penn’s plan will go before all five commissioners for approval until one of their two June meetings.

The township’s fire station and the elementary school are next to each other and share entrance roads off Sauerkraut Lane and Mill Creek Road.

East Penn plans that people dropping off and picking up students will only use the rear entrance off Mill Creek, while only school buses, firefighters and emergency vehicles will use the front entrance off Sauerkraut. Gates will keep buses and cars separated. And a guard will be stationed at the Sauerkraut Lane entrance to discourage parents from coming or going that way.

Conditions for plan approval recommended by the two commissioners are that the fire department get new warning lights, that striping be added on the rear entranceway to eliminate a turning problem for the department’s aerial truck and that additional conditions stipulated in the township engineer’s review letter be met by East Penn. Erdman noted that will require a response from the district.

Lower Macungie Fire Chief David Nosal wants signs with flashing red lights warning when emergency vehicles are exiting the fire station. He wants those signs to face both directions on both entrance roads to the school and fire station. He said he has asked for them three times, but nothing has been done.

Sara Pandl, Lower Macungie’s planning director, asked Szewszak if East Penn is willing to pay for such signs. Szewszak said he was not authorized to agree to anything. Township manager Bruce Fosselman encouraged Szewszak and Erdman to determine the cost of the signs and suggested the district and township might share that cost.

Nosal also expressed concern about getting the department’s 47-foot-long aerial truck out of the fire station and onto the rear entrance road to respond to emergencies. He indicated it won’t be able to make the turn and get out if the opposite lane is stacked with a line of cars coming to the school.

“Once they’re bumper-to-bumper, they can’t move,” said Lancsek.

Nosal explained the fire truck driver needs 20 to 25 feet of the opposing traffic lane “until he can swing straight and get in his own lane.”

Township officials said that problem probably can be eliminated with lines in the roadway and/or signs warning drivers they can’t stop within the fire truck’s pull-out zone. Szewszak said striping can be done, but expressed concerned about putting so many signs along entrance roads that people won’t pay attention to them.

Szewszak said he didn’t realize the fire department would be using the rear entrance road. Depending on the location or the fire or other emergency, Nosal said it could take at least two minutes longer if fire trucks must go north to get onto Sauerkraut Lane rather than going west to get onto Mill Creek Road.

No Willow Lane parents were at the committee meeting to learn about the school district’s proposal or ask questions.

East Penn estimates 140 cars now drop off and pick up children every day at Willow Lane, with a queue of cars sometimes backing up onto Sauerkraut Lane.

In late March, the school board voted to require children to walk to Willow Lane if they live less than three-quarters of a mile from the school. That will impact 125 to 140 children.

The big question is whether those children will actually walk or if adults will drive them to and from school, especially in bad weather – increasing the number of cars coming to the school twice a day.

Lancsek said Willow Lane was designed for children to be bussed, not taken by car.
But Szewszak said if the district does not reverse the traffic patterns, more cars will be backed out onto Sauerkraut Lane.

Szewszak said East Penn did not determine how many cars can queue up on the rear entrance road without backing out onto Mill Creek Road. But he said the rear entrance road is twice as long as the front entrance road.

Urging township approval, Szewszak said he needs to get bids for the work required to do the plan and get it completed this year. The school board approved the plan in March, at a cost of about $99,000. But the estimate could change. For example, Szewczak said test runs using “the largest bus we could get” showed the bus turnaround area in front of the school does not have to be widened.