Back to School: How the City handles new facilities and traffic flow

single-meta-cal July 31, 2017

Doesn’t this sound like a parent coping with back-to-school? 

“We kind of have to put everything on hold during those times because school is the main thing and we’ve got to work through challenges that weren’t there the previous year.” 

Those words don’t come from parents but instead belong to Dan Sanders, Director of Traffic Engineering for the City of Huntsville. 

A new school year always brings the busiest time for his department. 

A new school adds to the complexity. 

The new Grissom High School is opening this week, “and this particular project has kept our team busy,” Sanders says.  

The campus sits in the Haysland area in South Huntsville. It is a half-mile off of South Memorial Parkway, which serves some 70,000 vehicles per day, but it must be accessed by roads that intersect, or exit from, the Parkway.

Designing a plan is a team effort. Traffic Engineering works with the Huntsville Police Department, and they’re brought to the table by Huntsville City Schools’ Operations Department. 

Sanders and his team have been working on the Grissom plan for more than two years. Huntsville City Schools and its architects shared the site plan in advance, which includes driveways, exits and bus routes, so that Traffic and HPD could begin their work on the city streets nearby.  

There were nine sub projects for Traffic Engineering connected to Grissom, including the striping of streets, arrows designating turn lanes and pedestrian crossing lights at Weatherly Road and Memorial Parkway. 

Sanders says they have been proactive in installing signs in the area, to assure they’re ready for opening day but also to begin reminding drivers of the presence of school zones. They’ve also erected countless “No Parking” signs to maintain traffic flow. 

As Sanders notes, “We don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t know yet how many drivers are going to enter from the Parkway at Meadowbrook or at Weatherly.” His staff will be at Grissom “on day one” to collect data, to see what adjustments might need to be made to assure efficiency. 

It’s a blessing for Sanders & Co. – and certainly for all South Huntsville commuters – that the major construction project on South Parkway remains ahead of schedule. The mainline of traffic under the Martin Road overpass opened on July 29, meeting the three-month window ALDOT had predicted for its speedy completion. 

That eases the problems for the nearby Whitesburg P-8 School, for which Martin Road serves as ingress and egress. 

There’s one guarantee this week: The phones in Sanders’ department will ring more frequently with complaints. It’s inevitable as the volume of cars increases with school traffic. 

Governors Drive is always a busy spot with the continued growth on the Hampton Cove side of Monte Sano and the hundreds of Huntsville High students driving in. But as Sanders points out, “we have to balance delays.” 

To stage the traffic lights for longer flow on Governors as it reaches the Huntsville Hospital area would mean backups where there are two other school zones – for Huntsville Junior High and Blossomwood Elementary – and where traffic is incoming and outgoing with parents dropping off their children. 

“Each year we’ve had new schools coming in and we don’t know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to change things,” Sanders says. “That takes staff time and that’s resource-intensive. But I’ve got the best staff in the world, so that part’s good.” 

HPD Says… 

While Huntsville Police Department has a significant role in preparing a traffic plan for a school, its more essential role is to enforce that plan with its crossing guards. Some points to remember, from HPD. 

— If a crossing guard is telling you to stop, it’s no different than a red light telling you to stop. Guards are a “state-approved traffic control device.” 

— If a crossing guard has his or her back to you, it means stop.  

— Pay attention to the school zone lights and signs. Just because you can’t see the school doesn’t matter.  

— Slow down and think. Remember that school is back in session. Remember the school locations that are along your typical route. Be prepared to slow down and be prepared for extra congestion. 

— There is a zero-tolerance policy for violations in a school zone. HPD uses radar every day in school zones. Says Chief Mark McMurray, “You will get a ticket. I mean, if you are just two miles over you will get a ticket, and the judges will uphold it.”