Traffic Report Details Options For Handling Ridge Jam-ups
Alternatives for reducing weekday morning at entrance to Ridge High School presented to public.
The presentation of a traffic consultant's report on suggestions for better handling of morning traffic flow at Ridge High School is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, at a special Board of Education meeting to be held at the high school at 268 S. Finley Ave.
The report already is online at the Board of Education website.
The report from traffic consultant Gary Dean of Dolan & Dean, commissioned by the board in March for a fee of $10,700, specifies that the most cost effective method of reducing rush hour traffic at the high school is the continued bus dropoff at the Cedar Hill Elementary School, which began this past Feb. 1.
But the study acknowledged the opposition from Homestead Village neighbors, and suggested several other options — including one that school buses, upon entering the high school driveway, turn left into lot A and drop off students from that turnaround.
When the traffic consultant was hired to study ways of relieving morning traffic at Ridge, the expectation a solution could be completed before next fall.
The study began by noting that the population "boom years" that exploded the school population at Ridge between 1980 and 2000 are over, and the current enrollment of 1,850 high school students is expected to rise to about 1,925 in the forseeable future.
The study noted that although the school property itself has frontage only along South Finley Avenue, bordering parcels to the north and the east are owned by the township and could in theory provide an opportunity for potential alternate means of school access. However, the study also noted the drawbacks of such options.
"The Cedar Hill Elementary School is located immediately south of RHS and is currently used by high school busses for morning student drop-off, as directed by the school district to alleviate current congestion directly at RHS. In addition, a limited number of high school parents have informally adopted a similar student drop-off practice at the Cedar Hill School, again in an effort to avoid traffic congestion at the RHS main entrance," the study observed.
The study said a continuation of that option is the simplest and most "cost-effective" and said that the amount of bus traffic along Peachtree Road is not excessive.
"Although our office has not performed any type of analysis prior to the implementation of this system [routing buses through Cedar Hill], without question, the effective segregation of automobile and bus traffic has improved traffic operations at the school, particularly given the larger size of school buses and their concentration generally during primary parents’ drop-off and arrivals," the report states.
Many other options and alternative dropoffs proposed
However, the study also noted objections raised to that solution within the past several months, and outlined several other short-term and long-term options, some requiring little or no financial investment.
The study also criticized the current traffic pattern at Ridge High School. During traffic counts, the consultant observed that observed "the absence of any pavement markings and travel path ambiguity within the primary front access aisle of 'the oval' leads to considerable driver confusion."
The report continued that, "Vehicles were observed to occasionally 'slalom' the pedestrian crossing signs given the unmarked designation and absence of meaningful traffic control signage or direction. As a result of this configuration, there is considerable 'weaving; between vehicles vying for the limited curb frontage positions for drop-off and vehicles simultaneously trying to exit the drop-off lane. Students were also observed to be dropped off at both the northerly and southerly school entrances along the front, creating additional weaving conflicts between entering and exiting drop-off traffic."
The already poor system is further decreased in efficiency because typically only two or three vehicles let off passengers at a time, the study said. If the entire curb frontage were used, significantly more vehicles could simultaneously discharge, the report said.
"The congestion at the main school drop-off entrances in turn leads to queuing that extends into or close to the South Finley Avenue intersection during peak drop-off hours," she said.
"Finally, as noted from the traffic counts, parents were observed to use the municipal complex, which has its only means of access via Collyer Lane further to the north. As there is virtually no other traffic or parking activity within the municipal complex during peak school arrival (approximately 7:20 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.) there are no inherent conflicts created by this informal practice allowing a very effective drop-off pattern," the study said.
But the drawback to the informal dropoff procedure is that students who exit cars behind the municipal building must cross Astor Field, with no deliniated or paved walkway, and also may damage the athletic field, the report cited.
The report criticized the current intersection design and signal timing sequencing at the entrance to the high school by the Lake Road intersection — as implemented by Somerset County — as "rather poor." The system of traffic exiting the school and approaching on Lake Road rate an "F," while other approaches on South Finley Avenue are better, the report said.
The report notes that high school bus activity on Peachtree Road, heading to Cedar Hill School, is concentrated but with a very short duration, with most buses arriving between 6:55 a.m. and 7:15 a.m.
"But for this limited “window” of bus activity, there is virtually no other high school related bus activity outside of this 20-minute interval," the report states. "At an average headway of approximately one bus per minute, such activity is not overly invasive and the neighborhood street system can readily accommodate the bus traffic with no measurable impact on roadway capacity or operating conditions. The continued use of this option will provide the most cost-effective solution."
But the report suggests that as a slight compromise for short-term planning, in lieu of directing all RHS bus traffic to Peachtree Road, modest improvements could be made to the asphalt paved pathway between the Cedar Hill School and Ridge High School, which is currently gate-controlled for access by delivery and maintenance vehicles.
"Although the gate control would presumably remain, a one-way counterclockwise circulation could be employed allowing [high school buses] to enter RHS via Peachtree Road, but continue north on an improved access drive [which would require construction] allowing drop-off on the southerly side of the high school," the report offers as one idea. Buses would then exit through the southerly parking field and proceed directly to South Finley Avenue or through the “oval," without re-entering the Homestead Village neighborhood. But that system also would require modifications in the on-site traffic control if direct left turns were permitted from the smaller parking field and/or the use of traffic control directors to ensure buses are given priority to exit to South Finley Avenue.
The report also recommends a striping scheme at the Cedar Hill School, it is recommended that designated lane striping be installed along the high school entrance to better deliniate bus and vehicle routing.
"Similar to the current informal practice of using the two school entrances along the “oval” to better distribute drop-offs along the curb frontage, to further reduce congestion parents should be directed/encouraged to pull as far north as possible prior to dropping off. The potential availability of a covered access along the entire front sidewalk area would make for a more attractive route, although arguably further from the building entrance. Initially, traffic control personnel may be necessary to encourage parents to pull as far forward as possible to maximize the available curb frontage, thereby allowing greater simultaneous pick-up and drop-off."
As another alternate, a third point of entry could be considered at the northeastern corner of the school, by directing parents of other grades, such as ninth and tenth graders to circulate into the northern parking field closest to Astor Field and drop-off at another location.
Another idea, though enforcement would be a practical challenge and also require major behavioral changes by parents, the simple prohibition of parent drop-off activity between 7:00 a.m. and 7:10 a.m. to favor only bus activity may represent a way to manage traffic by creating a traffic “blackout” period, the report states.
To successfully implement this scheme, on-site personnel would be necessary to barricade the drop-off lanes to parent automobile traffic, giving full priority to bus activity. The “blackout” could discourage some parent drop-off and given that busing is offered, could marginally improve bus ridership, the report noted.
More long range plans
Although generally possible, the introduction of routing school buses to the Municipal building raises several initial concerns, principally related to the physical driveway setup at the municipal building entrance on Collyer Lane, the report states. Specifically, the presence of the two large stone columns create an effective “bottleneck” which in turn makes access by larger wheelbase vehicles such as buses very difficult, particularly for simultaneous entering and exiting, the report said.
"For students to walk to the high school at least 400 feet of new sidewalk would be required so that a stable walkway surface is provided to the school property. To preserve the integrity of the athletic fields, presumably such an access would be directed around the perimeter of the athletic fields. Moreover, during inclement weather, such a long access path to the building entrance would be infrequently used by parents, thus leading to more parent drop-off directly at the school entrance — precisely what should be discouraged," the report said.
For full left and right entrance to the Health Department property along South Finley Avenue, a complete reconstruction of the property frontage would be needed including the elimination of the stone wall to provide improved sight distance, the report said. But the traffic pattern from that scheme probably wouldn't be allowed by Somerset County anyway, the report said.
"As part of this analysis, consideration has been given to revising the access on the Health Department driveway for either reversible or full-time, two-way traffic flow. Associated with the improvement would be a probable need to revise the striping along South Finley Avenue for a dedicated left-turn lane into the driveway and improve the right turn radius for northbound turns from South Finley Avenue.
If the board preferred to have bus drop-off at the main entrance, the health department driveway could be used for non-drop-off, automobile traffic that continues to lots C and D and does not exit the school property. Based on the traffic counts, under such a scheme, approximately 260 vehicles would be 'removed' from the drop-off activity at the main entrance and would greatly lessen congestion and improve safety at the entrance," the report said.
Another plan for an additional entrance would require the acquisition of private property from one of the abutting homeowners currently fronting on South Finley Avenue. "For such an option, there is an obvious initial private property acquisition cost and the associated loss of a tax ratable for the municipality," the report said.
The grading of a driveway directly from South Finley Avenue through township-owned land "would be a significant concern to meet recognized design standards. In addition, there would be a loss of forested areas and a potential culvert or other drainage design that would carry potentially significant environmental permitting constraints relative to wetlands crossings or other state open waters, if applicable," the report said.
The report also gave consideration has been given to creating a perimeter circulation aisle to lessen movements within lot A, in front of the new gym, for bus drop-off. "Ideally such a circulation road would travel outside of the existing parking areas, and a field inspection reveals that such a road can be constructed with presumably minimal, if any, environmental impacts and relatively low construction costs." Students could be dropped off at the rear of the high school under such a scenario the report said.
"The limitation in such an access is that while such would eliminate use of Cedar Hill School, such necessitates entry by all school busses via the main signalized driveway opposite Lake Road. The design would further require a revision to the exit movements which as currently configured, directs all traffic within the Parking Lot Area A directly toward the front of the high school-in direct conflict with the parent drop-off," according to the report.
Entering the municipal lot, leaving via the high school
A final idea was to have vehicular traffic enter the municipal lot, reaching the high school via a gravel connecting road that could be improved. That traffic would then exit onto S. Finley Avenue. After a certain time in the morning, the access road would be closed off with a gate. The plan might remove about 260 vehicles from the backup to enter on South Finley, the report said.
The school district's administration decided to begin routing Ridge buses to Cedar Hill as of Feb. 1 prompted residents of Homestead Village to repeatedly protest the increase in both cars and buses now using the rear entrance to the high school.