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Neighbors not impressed with school traffic plan

Red Lady Avenue residents express their concerns

by Anika Pepper and Mark Reaman

A plan to try to further relieve some traffic pressures near the Crested Butte Community School was presented to both the Gunnison Re1J school board and the Crested Butte Town Council Monday evening, drawing the ire of neighborhood residents who expressed frustration at the volume of traffic at the start and end of each school day.

At the December 3 Gunnison Watershed School District board meeting, Brian Calhoun of RTA Architects and Kevin Tone of JVA Consulting Engineers presented their outline for Phase 2 of the Crested Butte Community School Improvement Plan and Safe Routes to school.

Their presentation included visual representations of possible changes to the CBCS parking lot to align the parking lot entrance with Eighth Street and create a four-way stop in that location, with students crossing on the south and west sides of the intersection at Eighth Street and Red Lady Avenue. Calhoun and Tone’s presentation also showed a right-hand turn lane being painted on Red Lady to allow the flow of cars entering the CBCS parking lot to be stacked and thus hopefully alleviating the regular traffic back-up along Highway 135 as parents drop their kids off at school.

Part of these plans also included removing the sidewalk on the south side of Red Lady Avenue along the school parking lot in an effort to enforce the Safe Routes to School plan on students crossing at Belleview and 6th instead of Red Lady and Highway 135. The current bus drop-off would be eliminated and buses would have a pull-in along Red Lady Avenue between Eighth and Ninth Streets.

Shortly after the completion of Calhoun and Tone’s presentation to the school, Crested Butte resident Krista Hildebrandt voiced her concern for the current traffic back-up along Highway 135 during school drop-off and pick-up coming from Crested Butte South and the southern part of the Gunnison Valley. Hildebrandt questioned why there has not been a discussion of putting a turn lane into the school parking lot from Highway 135’s northbound lane. She was told that given the slope from the hill coming into town, such a lane would be prohibitively expensive.

Sparked by Hildebrandt’s concerns, other community members, almost all Red Lady Avenue homeowners and residents, voiced their frustrations about the plan the school district is proposing. “Grab a cup of coffee or tea and hang out at the crosswalk in front of the school,” said Hildebrandt. “You need to see what is happening out there.”

Calhoun, Tone and the school board listened patiently to Red Lady Avenue residents and ultimately advised them to attend the Crested Butte Town Council meeting to discuss their concerns, as the resident’s specific concerns were out of the school board’s jurisdiction. They did, as the Town Council discussion was held about an hour after the school board meeting ended.

Five neighbors spoke before the Town Council and all expressed dismay at the amount of traffic that is seen on school days.

“I think this will be a catastrophe to the town and the neighborhood,” said neighbor Dave Ochs. “People who drive their kids to school choose to do so. They don’t need to. There are alternatives with bikes and buses. This is another Band-Aid on a major issue. If you would see what I see every day you would say it isn’t Crested Butte. This plan mixes more cars and kids and that’s not good.”

Chris Myall said the plan caters to the automobile and the council and school district had a chance to prioritize pedaling and transit alternatives. “This plan doesn’t encourage our youth to think of alternative ways to do things,” he said. “It is just one more plan to be more like Frisco.”

Myall encouraged the council to rethink the benefits of placing a roundabout at the Highway 135 and Red Lady Avenue intersection. “We have to encourage people to live up to our values, which are pedestrian, pedaling and transit,” he said.

“In regard to the bus pullout, it won’t work,” said Hildebrandt. “People will still drop their kids off in front of the buses. I see it every day. And pulling up sidewalks as part of the plan is confusing. There are people who use the sidewalks over there.”

“We need more sidewalks, not less,” chimed in Ochs.

“I use those sidewalks several times a day,” said neighborhood resident Martha Gable. “I think the plan is a million-dollar Band Aid.” She suggested making Red Lady Avenue one-way, at least during the traffic crunch times. And she suggested the buses drop off the students in the back of the school near where they are parked overnight, instead of on Red Lady Avenue. “Let’s think about this more and get it right,” she said. “Parents drop their kids off in the street to avoid the hassle of the parking lot.”

“Everyone is out for easiness,” agreed her husband, Fred Garing. “People want to get as close as they can, as fast as they can. We’ve been there a long time now and we’ve seen generational speeders. The kid whose mom was speeding to get him to school on time is now driving himself to school and he is just as late and driving just as fast as his mom did 10 years ago.”

Re1J superintendent Leslie Nichols said the district had looked at several plan alternatives. She said unloading kids in the back parking lot was a concern, given the space constraints and the fact it was the high school parking lot, which doesn’t always cater to the best drivers. “I share the concerns you all brought up,” she said.

Ochs too emphasized the effectiveness of roundabouts. “Ski towns in this country and in Europe use them and they work,” he said. “The burden of this traffic should be on the people driving to school, not the residents of town.”

Mayor Jim Schmidt said he felt roundabouts worked for traffic but were unsafe for pedestrians.

Town community development director Michael Yerman said that when the roundabout was being considered for the entrance to town, it was found to be safer for pedestrians than the alternative traffic pattern ideas for the area. “With a roundabout, pedestrians would be crossing one lane of traffic instead of dealing with four or five lanes,” he reminded Schmidt.

Ochs said going a step further and including a bridge over the roundabout would take it to the next level. “It would be super safe and think of the guy from Oklahoma driving into town and seeing local kids skate skiing to school over the bridge or watching a Nordic snow cat going over the bridge. It would separate vehicles and people and could be gorgeous and a unique experience.”

Myall emphasized the idea of not accommodating the automobile to the detriment of pedestrians. “When you make driving a car such a hassle, people will change their behavior,” he suggested. “It shouldn’t be easy to drop your kids off at school in your automobile.”

“I wish there was an easy solution,” commented Schmidt. “Maybe the idea of making Red Lady Avenue one-way could help.”

Ultimately, Phase 2 of the Crested Butte Community School Improvement Plan and Safe Routes is not ready for a decision and the presentation by Calhoun and Tone was simply an explanation of what could happen if the school board proceeds in that direction. The board will look at the issue again at the January meeting.

“I think it is really important that we don’t put a Band Aid on a long-term problem,” said Hildebrandt near the end of the school board discussion. The school board remained fairly quiet during the community discussion and assured community members that there is more to be discussed before Phase 2 is set into action.

Town manager Dara MacDonald said the town was interested in partnering with a solution and had budgeted $100,000 toward whatever solution is selected. She also said the traffic engineers were still crunching numbers.

Nichols said the school board is listening to public concerns and will look again at the issue at the January 7 meeting. But she warned that waiting too long to make a decision would push back any work that could take place this coming summer.

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