LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. - Although one of the main reasons for the proposed traffic switch at Willow Lane Elementary School in East Penn School District is to benefit the adjoining Lower Macungie Township fire station, the township's fire chief predicts it's going to make things worse.
"We could literally be shut down for two hours a day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – or severely delayed in getting out the door," predicted chief David Nosal.
Nosal estimated his fire department handles about 450 calls a year. "If you do the math, and say ‘how many calls happen between 8 and 9 in the morning and 3 and 4 in the afternoon Monday through Friday?' it's relatively nominal. But it still can happen. I need to make sure I can get my guys in and my apparatus out."
The problem is the fire station and elementary school share entrance roads off Sauerkraut Lane and Mill Creek Road.
Nosal made his comments late Thursday afternoon, when East Penn School District officials presented their plan for the traffic changes to a township commissioners' committee.
That plan was just approved Monday in a 4-3 vote by the school board
Paul Szewczak, the school district's engineer, explained the plan will change traffic circulation patterns at the school. People driving cars to drop off and pick up students will only use the rear entrance off Mill Creek Road, while only school buses will use the front entrance off Sauerkraut Lane. Szewczak said the entrance off Mill Creek Road can accommodate twice as many cars as the one off Sauerkraut Lane.
Manually-operated gates will keep bus traffic and car traffic separated during student drop-off and pick-up times.
Szewczak told township officials the "tremendous" amount of car traffic at the school is well in excess of what was anticipated when it opened in 2010.
He explained the school district was informed all that car traffic is creating problems with access to and from the fire station. Cars coming to the school now line up on the front entrance road, which passes the fire station, and even onto Sauerkraut Lane.
Yet the fire chief said the traffic congestion "is not too bad right now"
but claimed the school district's plan is going to make it worse. "You're bringing more cars in. It's only going to increase the problem."
Szewczak asked: "How does this plan bring more cars in?"
While Nosal didn't directly answer that, parents of Willow Lane children and township officials at the meeting predicted many more cars –perhaps hundreds more – will be dropping off and picking up children if East Penn buses fewer Willow Lane students in the next school year.
About 140 cars a day now pick up and drop off children every day at the school. Parents predicted that number will more than double if the number of buses (now 11) serving the school each day decreases.
While East Penn may reduce bus service and require more children to walk to Willow Lane Elementary, possibly from up to 1.5 miles away, one Lower Macungie official predicted more parents will just drive their kids to and from school.
Three of Lower Macungie's five commissioners heard East Penn's plans to reconfigure traffic at the school during a public meeting of the commissioners' planning committee.
Commissioners Douglas Brown and James Lancsek, who serve on that committee, repeatedly told school district officials the township wants a commitment from East Penn that more students will be walking to Willow Lane before Lower Macungie makes off-site improvements totaling about $100,000 to make neighborhoods around the school safer for children to walk.
Also attending the public meeting, but sitting in the audience, was Ron Eichenberg, president of the commissioners.
East Penn Superintendent Thomas Seidenberger did not attend. The school district was represented by Szewczak, operations director Lynn Glancy and school board solicitor Marc Fisher.
On Monday night, Seidenberger told his school board: "Once I feel reasonably assured the township is moving forward with their part of the plan, I will make my recommendation" regarding busing fewer Willow Lane students next fall.
The superintendent said if "someone balks at the township, they don't approve a plan," East Penn will continue busing as many Willow Lane children as it does now.
At the start of Thursday's meeting, Brown declared: "Contrary to what anybody in the audience has heard at school board meetings, the township has not received these plans prior to this, the township has not reviewed these plans, the township has not approved these plans." He said only a sketch plan was seen previously, which helped township officials determine the proposal could go through an expedited approval process.
The school district's plan will be reviewed by the township's staff, including the fire department. Township engineer Bill Erdman said that review should be completed by the next planning committee meeting on April 11.
After the committee reviews the plan, it will make a recommendation to all five commissioners, who could act on it at their April 18 public meeting.
Off-site improvements near the school will be made and paid for by the township.
They include two sets of flashing 15 mph school zone signals on Willow Lane and Mill Creek Road and five handicapped curb ramps, plus numerous crosswalks and pedestrian crossing signs.
Eight crossing guards also may be hired, but the exact number and who pays for them has not yet been decided, according to township officials.
Township commissioners plan to take action on Lower Macungie's off-site improvement plan for Willow Lane at their April 4 public meeting.
Erdman said the township will advertise for bids on April 29, commissioners can award bids on June 6 and all improvements should be completed by Aug. 9, a couple of weeks before school starts.
Nosal said the fire department uses both Sauerkraut Lane and Mill Creek Road when leaving the fire station, depending on the location of the emergency.
Szewczak indicated going out to Mill Creek Road should not be a problem, because cars won't be stacked up when they exit the school grounds. And he said the Sauerkraut Lane entrance "becomes wide open, not blocked at all" because only buses will use it at drop-off and pick-up times.
But Nosal believes parents will continue to enter off Sauerkraut Lane, drive in front of the fire station and cut into traffic waiting on the rear entrance road off Mill Creek. Assistant township engineer Alan Fornwalt suggested a gate could be added at the top of the fire station's driveway to prevent people from doing that.
The fire chief asked if his firefighters will have to drive to the station on the same rear entrance road "with a few hundred other cars dropping their kids off in the morning." Lancsek said firefighters will be able to use the school bus entrance off Sauerkraut Lane, which apparently will have signs warning it is for buses and emergency personnel only.
Because those firefighters arrive in their own cars, and the school district has no plans to police who uses the front entrance, Nosal asked how anyone will know the difference between a firefighter driving to the station and a parent driving in the wrong roadway.
Fisher said there is room to "stack" more than 140 cars on the entrance road off Mill Creek Road. School officials said they don't know how much that number will increase if the district buses fewer children in the next school year.
"Eighty percent of the parents in this township will drive them there," predicted Lancsek. "The parents in my own subdivision drive their children a half a block to the bus stop and wait there."
He added: "In bad weather, maybe nobody's going to walk."
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