Report suggests new crossing for school

By Steve Estes

A consultant’s report has quashed a local effort to get a school zone area implemented for the Big Pine Academy.

But the same report also details another way to go about accomplishing the same thing and help keep the children who attend the school safer while going to and from the facility on Big Pine Key.

According to a URS report last week, the implementation of a school zone at the Big Pine Academy would not meet any of the minimum standards set out by the state for such a facility.

The minimum student population for a full-blown school zone is well above the 200-student limit set for the Academy by its agreement with the state.

Monroe County School District at one time used the building now housing the Big Pine Academy as an elementary school. But when the district decided to build a regional middle school on Sugarloaf Key, part of the agreement with the US Fish and Wildlife Service for mitigation of the new school was the closure of the elementary school on Big Pine.

After lying fallow for a short time, a group of local volunteers, spearheaded by former School Board member Duncan Mathewson, convinced the state and the local board to allow the formation of a charter school on the property.

In its first year,the school had less than 30 students and served only kindergarten through third-grade children.

It has since grown to encompass students from VPK through eighth grade and its numbers this year are just over 190 at the primary campus on US 1. To accommodate the higher numbers of VPK kids, the academy leased a local day care facility and moved the VPK and three-year-old programs there to keep the student cap in check.

With an ever-increasing student population, school officials urged Monroe County to lobby the state Department of Transportation for a school zone to slow traffic in the area. Most of the students at the school are delivered by private transportation, but a large number do walk to school.

Those who walk to school are forced to cross three lanes of US 1 traffic during what is considered rush hours on Big Pine Key with no designated cross walk or marked school zone.

Though a school zone isn’t possible under state regulations, the consultant’s report does lay out a method to get students and parents across US 1 with some modicum of safety.

According to the report, DOT could install what’s called a mid-block pedestrian crossing.

And that would entail the installation of other pedestrian-friendly features, says Trish Smith, Monroe County transportation planner.

“This is actually a good solution considering the circumstances at the school,” said Smith.

The recommended plan calls for the installation of an ADA-compliant sidewalk from the are in front of the school to the transit bus stop in front of the old Marshall Building to the east on the south side of the highway.

“We can’t ask kids to walk the highway without a safe sidewalk,” she said.

The consultant reports that some students do arrive for school on the county transit bus which stops in front of the Marshall Building northbound and in front of Walgreens southbound.

“The consultant had to devise a way to get the kids safely from the transit stop to the school,” said Smith.

The sidewalk took care of the problem on the south side of the highway, but the solution was a little more problematic for southbound traffic.

To address that issue, the report suggests installing a sidewalk from the transit stop on the north side of the highway to a pedestrian crossing just west of both stops.

“The plan calls for the installation of a pedestrian call button at the crosswalk which would turn the emergency signal to be installed there from blank to flashing yellow to warn drivers that a pedestrian crossing was ahead,” said Smith.

The report says that there generally isn’t enough of a break in traffic, particularly during high season, for the normal person to cross US 1 in one attempt.

“The report found that parents and students were stopping in the suicide lane between lanes of traffic to wait for another break to make it completely across,” said Smith.

To address that issue, the consultant suggests that a raised median be built in the suicide lane at the crosswalk.

“That gives pedestrians an island of safety to wait for a break in traffic to get across the highway,” said Smith.

Funding for the proposed project will come from the state DOT, she says.

“We’ll take the recommendation to the Board of County Commissioners in January. If they agree that this is the way to handle it, we’ll present it to DOT for inclusion in their five-year work plan for next year,” said Smith.

State DOT officials last week presented the tentative work plan for fiscal years 2015-2020 last week ot a small Monroe County crowd in Marathon, meaning that the window for this year may have closed.

“DOT recognizes that this is a safety issue. In fact, it was DOT that asked the county to undertake the study in all haste,” said Smith. “I think we can successfully lobby DOT to funnel some unused money to the project before fiscal 2016. I’d like to see the project get off the ground in 2014. We need it.”

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