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Lower Macungie officials discuss preliminary safety plans for kids who will walk to Willow Lane Elementary

LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. - Solar-powered school zone signals, crosswalks, more stop signs to create more "all-way" intersections and a few more handicapped ramps are among improvements Lower Macungie Township is planning in neighborhoods around Willow Lane Elementary School.

Preliminary safety improvement plans for children who may be walking to the school were discussed Thursday afternoon by Lower Macungie officials.

East Penn School District plans to save more than $100,000 a year in transportation costs by no longer providing busing for children who live within 1.5 miles of that school, which is at the intersection of Sauerkraut and Willow lanes and opened in September 2010.

Both the township and school district plan to make safety improvements on and around the school property before the 2013-14 school year begins in late August.

Township commissioner James Lancsek predicted 90 percent of Willow Lane's parents will drive their children to and from school rather than having them walk if busing is reduced.

Commissioner Douglas Brown wondered if the school district is planning sufficient parking if parents picking up children at the end of the school day are required to go inside the building and sign their children out.

While at least a few Willow Lane parents concerned about the "walking school" issue usually attend township and school board meetings, none were at the township commissioners' planning and zoning committee Thursday, possibly because they learned East Penn was not sending anyone to that meeting to explain its preliminary plans for the school.

"We're moving full speed ahead until somebody says otherwise," said William Erdman, who is the township's engineer. "In order to meet that August deadline, we can't sit back and wait. As long as we keep going full speed ahead, we should be okay."

He said the good news is neighborhoods around the school have an extensive sidewalk system, with handicapped ramps.

"This isn't a final plan," stressed Alan Fornwalt of Keystone Consulting Engineers, when he presented it to officials.

A pair of the flashing amber lights, which designate a 15-mph school zone, are proposed along Willow Lane between Sauerkraut Lane and Wheatland Drive. The two lights will be no more than 1,600 feet apart, the maximum distance allowed by law, and each will face traffic. Two more of the signals are proposed along Mill Creek Road south of Sauerkraut Lane.

If there are too many signals with artificially low speed limits, people tend to ignore them, said Fornwalt. "We've tried to concentrate in the areas that will be most important to pedestrians," he explained.

Solar-powered signals are more expensive, said Erdman, "but not cost prohibitive." They also will eliminate possible delays regarding running wires from an electric source.

Fornwalt said permits for the solar-powered school zone signals should be submitted to the state Department of Transportation within the next week.

Two ramps for handicapped accessibility will be added to the neighborhoods and a third will be reconstructed. Fornwalt said a new handicapped ramp costs about $4,500. Lancsek said it is the responsibility of residents to install such ramps at their properties.

"We're setting a precedent if we pay for it."

Fornwalt said "all-way" stop signs must be added at some intersections where children cross, so every crosswalk has a stop sign.

He said crosswalks will be installed at intersections that have stop signs to protect children. The only exception will be crosswalks with crossing guards.

Residential areas with fewer vehicles probably will just have two lines designating a crosswalk. But main roads, such as Willow, Sauerkraut and Mill Creek, will have "more outstanding" crosswalks that have colored, textured surfaces.

Under the direction of Township Manager Bruce Fosselman, no one responded to a question about paying crossing guards. East Penn anticipates the possibility of sharing the costs for guards.

The school district now plans to present its final plan to the township planning and zoning committee at 4 p.m. March 14. East Penn officials were going to make that presentation Thursday, but did not attend because their engineer could not make it. Plans must be approved by township commissioners and East Penn School Board.

Erdman showed township officials the school district's proposed improvements at Willow Lane Elementary, but stressed he was doing so only to raise the issue of "what is the procedural requirement for the township to approve the revised land development plan."

Erdman said he's yet not done a formal review of the district's plan and declined to talk about any specifics because East Penn officials were not there to explain them. He said East Penn is making changes in the circulation of traffic and pedestrians on the school property in anticipation of more children walking.

Sara Pandl, the township's planning and community development director, said East Penn Superintendent Thomas Seidenberger told her the district's improvements will be made at Willow Lane whether or not it becomes a "walking school."

Despite that, Lancsek wants a commitment from the school district before Lower Macungie spends "all kind of money and then they change their minds about busing. I hate to be spending money if we don't have to."

"We want to do this anyway, regardless of busing," said township commissioner Ryan Conrad, who was at the meeting but not a member of the planning committee. "And the parents want it. They are very concerned about this. And it's not just five or six parents."

Lancsek said other new schools don't have such features.

Countered Conrad: "There is no reason not move forward with this."

Fosselman and Conrad said money is in Lower Macungie's 2013 budget to do the work. It has earmarked $85,000 for the project and also has a $100,000 state grant that will be used, said Conrad.

Lancsek, the former township zoning officer, said East Penn did not present Willow Lane Elementary as a walking school to the township before it was built. If it had been, he said, all improvements now being discussed already would have been made – and the school district would have picked up the entire tab.

Pandl said Lower Macungie now has an expedited approval process that should benefit the proposed Willow Lane Elementary improvements.

But Lancsek continued to push for a conditional use hearing on the district's plans, even though the township's solicitor already determined one is not required. Saying "I feel strongly about a conditional use hearing," Lancsek indicated such a hearing would not delay needed improvements, because it could be held on the same night East Penn's plan comes to the five commissioners for final approval.

Lancsek said there may be additional costs that the school district, not the township, should pay. He explained that would be brought up at a conditional use hearing.

"When it comes in front of us, they are expecting final approval," said Brown.

Lancsek said conditions could be put on that final approval.

Erdman said if Lower Macungie does want a conditional use hearing, the school district must know that "the sooner the better" and its propped improvements also might have to go the township planning commission.

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