Inside Your Town

Lower Macungie prepares to move on Willow Lane School safety improvements

LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. - Flashing school zone signals with 15 mph speed limits posted on them.

Crossing guards.

Stop signs with greater visibility.

Crosswalks, some that might be upgraded with LED lighting.

Those are just some of the improvements Lower Macungie Township plans to make in the coming months to ensure the safety of children who will be walking to Willow Lane Elementary School next fall.

Details are still very sketchy, because township staffers just held a first meeting with East Penn School District officials one week ago. But township officials seem determined to beat the deadline to make necessary off-site safety improvements at the school.

"This school starts before Labor Day," said Ron Eichenberg, chairman of the commissioners, at their Thursday night meeting. "We don't want bureaucracy to get in the way of the safety of our children."

Township engineer William Erdman told Lower Macungie commissioners that East Penn is determined to make Willow Lane a school children will walk to -- if they live within 1.5 miles, according to the school district.

"They are definitely going forward with this," said Erdman.

The school, which opened in 2010, is near the intersection of Sauerkraut and Willow lanes in the township.

Erdman indicated installing school zone signals is the first priority because it takes time to get approval from the state Department of Transportation to install them and they need electricity to operate.

Eichenberg suggested solar powered signals. Erdman said that's a possibility, although he added solar can be very expensive. He said $85,000 is in the township budget for those signals.

Erdman said such school zone signs always are erected in pairs, one beyond each end of a school property. He said three pairs of those signals may be needed at Willow Lane, although two pairs may be sufficient.

He indicated other improvements, while not yet funded, will require less lead time to complete. He told commissioners: "We will move forward to determine what those improvements are and come up with a budget to bring back to the board for approval."

What Erdman called a coordination meeting was held Jan. 11 with school district and township staff, as well as a representative from Pennsylvania State Police.

"The meeting was very productive," he reported. "There was no finger pointing. Everybody realized they are certain responsibilities. We're going to move forward with those as quickly as we can. The end result will be a safe and satisfactory plan for the walking proposal the school district has decided on."

The engineer said on-site improvements at Willow Lane will be the responsibility of the school district, while improvements not on the school property are the responsibility of the township.

He said changes are being made on the school property to better accommodate bus, car and pedestrian traffic.

Commissioner James Lancsek said if the school district is making major changes at the school regarding internal access, the township may have to hold another conditional use hearing on Willow Lane. "I'm not trying to throw obstacles up, I'm trying to throw these things out, so the staff has time to do whatever has to be done," said Lancsek.

"Who really cares?" responded Commissioner Ryan Conrad. "What's more important is that we're working together to make the school ready for walking because that's what the school wants and that's what the school's doing. Let's move forward. We have to prepare the township to get the school ready for it to be walkable."
Lower Macungie commissioners want the school district to meet regularly with township staffers, to make sure all improvements are completed in time.

While Erdman said no East Penn School Board members attended the first meeting with East Penn officials, two township commissioners --Ryan Conrad and Douglas Brown -- intend to attend future meetings.

Lancsek made it clear all commissioners need to be kept informed. He said they need to understand the overall stuff first, "then you can get to the nitty-gritty. If you get to the nitty-gritty now, it's going to be too late for input. That's what I don't want."

Several commissioners said their own committees should review the planned improvements for the school, finally agreeing that all of them will review them.

East Penn officials maintain Willow Lane always was intended to be "a walking school," but they aren't making kindergarten to fifth graders walk until next fall –which will save the district $60,000 in annual transportation costs.

"I'm a little disappointed the school district is making major decisions that affect us without us being part of this, such as budgeting things we have to do," said Lancsek.

"I'm a little troubled that the school board is saying this is what we decided to do, now you go and pay for it," said Commissioner Roger C. Reis. "I don't like that the school district already has made that decision, yet we're expected to go forward and pay for all these improvements."

But township manager Bruce Fosselman reminded commissioners "we put $85,000 in the budget for flashing lights for this. So we knew about it. It's not like you guys didn't know about it."

Also during Thursday's meeting, Erdman reported the single-lane Church Lane Bridge will remain closed for three or four months, until it can be repaired.

The township closed the bridge in spring to protect it from being damaged by too much traffic, after the state closed a section of nearby Spring Creek Road to replace a bridge on that road. Just before the township planned to reopen the wooden structure at the end of 2012, PennDOT bridge inspectors determined it had to remain closed because of deterioration.

Erdman is gathering quotes about how much it will cost to repair the bridge, which does not require public bidding. He predicted a recommendation to move forward will be presented to commissioners in early February. He said approval must be obtained from Norfolk Southern before repairs can be made, which could add to the delay.

"We want Church Lane to be open," said Fosselman. "We're getting too many calls on this. But it's out of our control."

Township officials said the day may come when that bridge no longer can be repaired and must permanently close. Erdman said replacing it would require a much larger and higher bridge – so railroad cars carrying double-stack containers could fit under it. He said building such a large bridge also would infringe on graves in a nearby cemetery.

On another issue, Cassandra Williams, township finance director, said nearly 150 homes will have their water shut off at the end of January if their owners don't pay delinquent sewer bills. She said 204 homes were tagged with shut-off tags on Monday and Tuesday. She said the water already had been shut off at 11 of those properties. Another 47 residents contacted either paid up or made arrangements to pay. She said not including those 47, the township is owed $152,800.

This is the second round in the township's effort to collect delinquent bills by threatening to shut off water. In November, notices were put on more than 200 homes, whose residents owed the township more than $350,000.

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