City commissioners are asking for strategies to smooth traffic on New Jersey Road as Magnolia Montessori Academy plans a 54 percent jump in student population and Geneva Classical Academy prepares to move into its new campus nearby.
Four commissioners attending Friday’s study session to prepare for Monday’s decision-making meeting asked staff to consider a number of solutions to calm concerns of neighborhood residents and travelers on the busy collector street.
Possible solutions discussed by commissioners and staff include:
- Re-installing a traffic signal at the intersection of New Jersey and Sylvester roads. A signal that had been there was removed several years ago as the city built a pedestrian/bicycle trail along the west side of New Jersey Road.
- Changing the design of a planned left-turn lane for southbound traffic turning into Geneva Academy so that the roadway is farther away from homes on the west side of the street.
- Looking into providing a pedestrian crosswalk or school crossing signage on New Jersey Road at Magnolia Academy.
- Considering long-range strategies to provide sidewalks leading to all public and private schools in the city. Neither Geneva nor Magnolia are served by public school buses.
Keeping on topic
City Attorney Tim McCausland opened Friday’s agenda study meeting saying that although commissioners are getting calls from constituents, they need to keep in mind the simple issue before the seven-member commission on Monday afternoon: Magnolia Montessori has asked that its existing conditional use permit be amended so that it can grow from 120 to 185 students and so it can construct a 4,500- square-foot classroom building. Two portable buildings, installed in 2016, would be removed.
“A lot of what you are hearing is speculation about what may occur after these properties get built out,” McCausland told the commissioners.
Commissioner Justin Troller commented that in addition to the schools, which may later ask for more student capacity, there is potential that an adjacent orange grove eventually could be developed into housing, which would further impact New Jersey Road and its intersection with Sylvester Road.
City Planning Manager Teresa Maio said city staff understands the concerns about increased traffic and “the unknown of what is coming with two schools cumulatively.” But analysis shows the impacts of additional traffic from Magnolia Academy would be minimized by using the same conditions that were placed on Geneva Academy’s conditional use permit last fall, she said.
Those conditions include having school resource officers or specially trained staff directing traffic during drop-off and pick-up times, not allowing students to be dropped off on New Jersey Road or on neighboring streets, and requiring traffic to queue on the campuses.
Magnolia Montessori Academy’s existing conditional use permit was issued in 2013 when the public charter school opened at 1540 New Jersey Road on the 5.7-acre campus of Presbyterian Chapel in the Grove.
Last November the City Commission approved a separate conditional use permit that allows Geneva Classical Academy, a private Christian school, to move its approximately 160 students this fall from Lakeland Highlands Road to 1736 New Jersey Road. just to the south of Magnolia Montessori.
Maio said there should be no queuing issues as long as the terms of the site plans and conditional use permits are followed. Both campuses are large enough to accommodate long queuing lines onsite.
A slide showed Magnolia Academy has a maximum of 185 students with queue space of 650 to 1,100 feet and Geneva Academy has a maximum of 250 students with 950 to 1,450 feet for traffic to queue. By comparison, McKeel Academy has 1,160 students with 1,760 feet queue space and Lawton Chiles Middle has 665 students with only 750 feet queue space.
Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley said that 750 feet at Lawton Chiles Middle is not enough, adding that cars wrap around the neighborhood and during the busy first few weeks of school queue around Lake Wire.
And, McCarley said, while the conditional use permit may say how traffic is supposed to queue, there are going to be parents who do not follow that, who drop off older students in traffic, and who cut others off.
“As a mom, I have spent many hours in car lines. We may say not to do that, but it is going to happen,” McCarley said.
Watch the commission discussion. It starts a minute and 30 second into the meeting:
“Schools are a big traffic challenge,” city transportation planner Chuck Barmby acknowledged. With parents having to get to work and deliver siblings to other sites during peak morning hours, it is complicated, he said.
However in the case of Magnolia and Geneva academies, the morning drop-off time is spread out between 7 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. and the afternoon pick-up time is generally before 4 p.m., which is the beginning of the two-hour evening peak-time for traffic, Barmby said.
And both schools are already working with the Lakeland Police Department to handle traffic flow issues before problems develop, Barmby said.
The small increase in traffic caused by adding 65 students at Magnolia Academy would not warrant a turn lane in front of the school, nor would it warrant a traffic signal there, Barmby said.
However, with Geneva bringing in 160 students immediately and eventually increasing that to 250 students, the city placed a condition that it have a southbound left-turn lane installed on New Jersey Road. Originally, that turn lane was to be operational before the upcoming school year starts but because of design and engineering changes, Geneva has been given a one-year reprieve, Barmby said.
Maio, Barmby and several staff members from the public utilities department met with neighborhood residents last week, Barmby said. The residents felt the turn-lane design combined with the already-built trail was bringing the traffic too close to their homes, Barmby said.
“We took that to to heart and came back with a narrower footprint for the road itself,” Barmby said. The traffic lanes would be narrowed from 11 feet wide to 10.5 feet wide and the turn lane from 10.5 feet wide to 10 feet wide, he said. And the grassy area between the traffic lane and trail be removed in that vicinity. Altogether, that would allow a shift seven feet away from the residences, he said.
Engineers are evaluating the impact on electrical and water utilities and making sure nothing is being overlooked, he said.
Removing the signal at New Jersey and Sylvester roads and replacing it with a left-turn lane and a three-way-stop intersection freed the needed space for the trail and utilities, Barmby said. A study had shown that the traffic density did not meet modern standards for a signal, he said.
While the current three-way stop setup “does create congestion in the mornings, depending on what direction you are going,” even with two schools the congestion will not not meet traffic density criteria for a signal,” Barmby said.
But from an engineering standpoint, rather than a density standpoint, it appears there could be justification to re-install the signal, Barmby said.
Angelo Rao, manager of city traffic operations and parking, reported that the signal “could be approvable if we would operate it differently,” Barmby said. “The northbound lane would be independent. The southbound lane would have a left-turn lane onto Sylvester and the signal would allow southbound traffic to go straight through, The northbound lane would be held, then cycled through, he said.
Rao estimated the cost at $150,000 to reinstall the signal, if the city does the design and installation work, he said.
“We need to figure out if this is something the public really wants and where does the money come from,” Barmby said.
Commissioner Scott Franklin said that in talking with folks around the area, “they said we created a problem that did not exist solely to accommodate the trail.”
Franklin said he understand the reasoning for the trail but “I don’t see why there is a problem putting the signal back in. There is a lot more people going along New Jersey than coming out of Sylvester.”
Mayor Bill Mutz commented that it appears “the desire to re-install the signal is going to be high among the commissioners.”
While the trail runs along the west side of New Jersey, there are no sidewalks on the east side where the schools are.
Because neither are neighborhood schools, few students would be expected to live in the immediate area and walk to school, Barmby said.
But in exploring solutions, city staff found:
- Pedestrian crosswalks with a flashing beacon could be installed at a cost of about $10,000 each and would allow pedestrians to cross over to the trail, providing more visibility than simple school zone signage.
- Installing sidewalks on the east side would be expensive – $262,500, including moving utilities, to go from Sylvester Road north past both schools to Crystal Lake Drive.
Commissioner Troller asked if the likelihood would be zero to build a sidewalk all the way from Edgewood Drive, past Sylvester Drive to Crystal Lake Drive.
“Not zero, but slim” Barmby said, and only a slightly better chance that the city would install the sidewalk from Sylvester to Crystal Lake Drive. “We have to deal with utilities … water, electric and phones,” and that makes it expensive, Barmby said.
“Sidewalks enhance neighborhoods, help us reach our goal of being a walkable community,” Troller said. “Just because there is limited usage now, or limited usage by schools, we are dramatically impacting a neighborhood when we put in a sidewalk, in my opinion, whether it is along a collector road or not. Anything we can do it to enhance it is a bonus.”
And, Troller said, there is no price that can be put on a life if a kid is hit after a mom dropped him off in the road because she did not want to wait in line.
Barmby suggested staff could set up a strategy for a multi-year program to install sidewalks and crosswalks.
Commissioners Bill Read, Phillip Walker and Stephanie Madden were not at Friday’s meeting.
The City Commission meeting starts at 3 p.m. Monday in City Hall, 228 S. Massachusetts Ave.
The city staff report: