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Wauwatosa seeks solutions to school drop-off snarl on Center Street

Dec. 19, 2012

When the school day begins and ends on Center Street, traffic stops, and not just to drop off or pick up school kids. Parents often get caught in a frustrating log jam.

"You have three schools in a row, and they're all trying to drop off at the same time," said Cherie Treptow, creating a verbal picture of the typical morning scene on Center Street just west of Mayfair Road. "And you have parents trying to get to work themselves, and it gets really nuts.

"I'm always afraid that my kids (are) going to get hit when they're going across the street. They have great crossing guards, but they have to go down some roads that don't have crossing guards in order to get across."

Treptow has a child who attends Whitman Middle School, and another who goes to Wauwatosa West High School. Those two schools, plus Eisenhower Elementary, line up in a row on Center, and start school and let out within a frenzied 20 minutes at the beginning and the end of the day. More than 2,000 students are enrolled in the three schools.

Severe congestion

A report on the situation commissioned by the city came before the Traffic & Safety Committee last week, with the consultant, Ayres Associates, finding moderate, severe or extreme congestion at key intersections during morning and/or afternoon pickup times.

In particular, it noted severe congestion at 116th and Center streets, across from Tosa West, in the afternoon pickup time, with traffic backups of more than 1,000 feet, and extreme congestion in the morning on 115th Street, at Center, with traffic backing up as it moves north and south on the side street.

"A total of 785 vehicles were counted during the morning peak hour" of 7:45 to 8:45 a.m., the report says. More than 300 of those cars came and went within a 15-minute time period. The report also found a total of 340 pedestrians crossing busy Center Street between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m., 222 of them at 14th Street, across from Tosa West.

Dangerous practices

By observing traffic movement, the consultant noted cars cutting through local business lots on the northwest corner of Mayfair Road and Center Street; parked cars lined up on both sides of Center; students being dropped off into moving traffic lanes; car and pedestrian traffic building up in the neighborhood south of Center; parents making prohibited U-turns on Center; students crossing Center mid-block instead of at crosswalks; and cars backed up as far as Mayfair Road, even blocking off businesses.

"Traffic is very congested during school start and dismissal times for about 15-20 minutes between 117th Street to (Mayfair Road)," the report notes.

Three crosswalks are manned by crossing guards, but there are no sidewalks on the south side of Center that would allow students easy and safe access to the crosswalks, and only one concrete "staging" pad for pedestrians at one corner.

The report records 11 car crashes on Center from 2009 through 2011, none of them causing injury. But this does not include crashes in the vast parking lot between Eisenhower and Tosa West. The report does cite an accident one in which a 5-year-old girl was hit by a car in front of Eisenhower in June 2011. Her back was injured, but she recovered.

"The one thing that makes the area safe is the congestion there - cars have to go slow," said Kenneth Voigt of Ayres.

Trapped by circumstance

"Dropping off is easy, it's picking up which is the difficult thing," said Melissa Lopez, waiting in her car outside of Eisenhower on a recent afternoon. "I park right here, a half-hour, sometimes an hour early, just so I can have a spot. Otherwise I can't get in here."

Lopez has two children at Eisenhower and one a Whitman. She said she spends an hour an half on pickup every day.

"It's difficult to get out of here on time to get my daughter at middle school," she said.

The lane in front of Eisenhower is not supposed to be used by people leaving the lot, but high school drivers routinely ignore that fact, she said.

"The high school kids come flying through here all the time. It's very dangerous. … They're speeding through here, and there's children walking through here," she said.

She's often trapped in her spot, unable to leave. "They don't let anybody get out of the parking lots. It's chaotic."

With cars lined up outside the schools - where it is marked "No Parking" - even buses have a hard time parking, said one driver, who wouldn't give his name.

Elusive solutions

Lopez, like other parents interviewed, couldn't offer a solution.

"I don't how much more you can improve," she said. "It's just the people behind the wheel that need consideration."

"I have no suggestions," said Mary Treptow. "If you think about it, you can't start the kids (at the different schools) too far apart, because that really screws the parents up."

Ayres Associates offered short-term and long-term solutions.

In the short term, Voigt recommended more use of orange cones in crosswalks, high-visibility crosswalk markings; concrete pedestrian pads at all crosswalk locations; forbidding parking on Center Street during school days, but allowing 10-minute parking on the school side of Center during drop-off and pickup times; better and more traffic control signs, and flashing LED school-zone signs, among other things.

Down the road, Ayres recommended "pedestrian refuge islands" in the middle of Center Street; a drop-off/ pickup special lane in front of Eisenhower, and a sidewalk on the south side of Center.

Alderman Dennis McBride said the city should move on these suggestions.

"I would rather have some sidewalks than have kids get hit by cars," he said.

The committee, in the end, voted to work with the school district to set up a community meeting to gather input, and meet again to consider options.

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