A child's death and a proliferation of new schools have prompted a review of traffic safety problems along Washington County roads.
The fresh look comes after engineers acknowledged difficulty in managing growing traffic around schools — and responding to conflicting expectations about what should be done.
"School warning signs made a lot more sense decades ago when there were fewer schools and pedestrians were likely to be seen around each of these schools," said Joe Gustafson, the county's traffic engineer. "I'll be the first to admit that many signs are archaic for many of the situations out there."
Angela Eppler-Scheller of Cottage Grove, the mother of a 3-year-old boy killed on County Road 19 outside St. Ambrose of Woodbury Catholic School, went public with her anger earlier this year after engineers removed warning lights and ended a slower school-hour speed limit put in place after the crash occurred in 2005. They said that a $9.8 million road reconstruction project completed last fall created a safer solution — a new left-turn lane to move vehicles off the main road.
The family's van was waiting in the southbound lane to turn left into the school's day care entrance when a fast-moving school bus, with no students aboard, rear-ended it. Wyatt was killed and his father, John, was severely injured. Some months later, Wyatt's sister, Sierra, appeared before the County Board to plead for new safety measures, including a reduced speed limit.
The county complied, but Gustafson said the speed limit was intended as a temporary safety measure until the left-turn lane was built.
"I am shocked and devastated that the school zone put in place at St. Ambrose was removed," Sierra, now 17 and an incoming senior at East Ridge High School, said last week. "It sent a powerful message that my efforts to have the reduced speed limit during peak drop-off and pickups was for nothing."
The family's ongoing concerns prompted the County Board's recent review of traffic safety, as did recognition that most students now ride to school. Commissioners heard Gustafson explain why traditional safety methods often don't work.
In recent years, dozens of new schools have appeared along county roads, often far from neighborhoods. One of them is Wildwood Elementary in Grant. Another is St. Croix Preparatory, a K-12 charter school on Stagecoach Trail in Baytown Township. The county installed a traffic signal at the intersection leading to that school, which now has 1,100 students, but "very serious congestion issues" remain at peak times, Gustafson said.
Schools along county roads now include religious, charter, magnet, Montessori, special education centers, subject-specific academies and even K-12 home and online schools, and "that's an awful lot of locations," he said.
"It's not just schools but all intersections have peak hours," Gustafson said. "Churches have peak hours every Sunday, office parks have busy periods every morning and afternoon, movie theaters have congestive peaks on Friday and Saturday nights and we also have to be cognizant of the fact that all intersections carry school traffic. Drivers drive their kids from home."
Lisa Weik, the county commissioner who represents Woodbury, asked at the recent board workshop whether a proposed stoplight would be installed at the entrance where Wyatt was killed.
"Nothing is off the table," Gustafson said. One proposal at St. Ambrose, he said, involves linking two parking lots so drivers don't have to return to the county road to get from one school entrance to another. That's what Wyatt's father did that day, driving to the west entrance after taking Sierra to the north entrance.
"Especially because we had a fatality there, I would be in favor of having a flashing yellow light with the school warning sign," Weik said.
But County Engineer Wayne Sandberg said the new left-turn lane resolved the worst safety problem outside St. Ambrose, a school of about 600 students. The school has no crosswalk or pedestrian access off County Road 19 that would merit traditional school-zone warnings, he said.
Few were heeding lights
"We have other problems related to congestion, so the question you have to ask yourself is, will a flashing light at that school sign solve that congestion problem?" Sandberg said.
County engineers said few drivers were slowing down on the stretch where Wyatt was killed despite flashing lights warning of a 35 mile-per-hour speed limit (when school began and ended) on the 55 mph county road. Southbound vehicles traveled at an average of 48 mph through the school zone over six years speeds were measured, they said.
"Additionally, the data showed that the uniformity of speeds was significantly worse when the sign was flashing than when the sign was off," Gustafson said. "Lack of speed uniformity (some cars going slow, others going fast) is an indicator of more traffic conflicts (passing, tailgating, etc.) and is correlated to higher crash risk."
Eppler-Scheller wasn't buying it. "The county needs to take responsibility and have safety as a No. 1 priority for the roads people travel," she said last week.
Engineers want to continue a "site specific, data driven" method of re-evaluating safety measures outside individual schools, Gustafson told the County Board. Commissioners appeared to agree but no vote was taken because the discussion came in a workshop.
"Our approach doesn't always meet the desires and needs of parents around schools," Sandberg said.