A proposal to put a traffic signal at Alameda de las Pulgas and Walsh Road in Atherton, which the Las Lomitas School District says is needed to improve school safety, is being questioned by some neighbors who fear it would make it harder to get in and out of their neighborhood.
As part of a plan to rebuild much of the campus of the kindergarten to third grade Las Lomitas Elementary School at 299 Alameda de las Pulgas, the school wants to move its main entrance to line up with Walsh Road and have a four-way traffic signal installed there.
District officials say the changes would make it easier and safer for pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicles to get in and out of the school. The school also wants other improvements, including the removal of some crosswalks on Alameda and a new location for others.
"Especially on this campus, safety has been a really great concern," the district's bond projects director, Eric Holm, told about four dozen people who attended a public meeting on the proposed stoplight on Tuesday, March 6, at the school.
While plans for changes on school campuses don't need local planning or building approval, the stoplight and any other changes the district wants on local streets must be approved by Atherton. The Atherton City Council would have the final say on the project.
The district had asked the town to pre-approve the light, and to pay for it, as part of negotiations to put a town water capture facility on school grounds. Town officials said they couldn't approve the project without it going through the usual public approval process and the negotiations fell apart at that point. (The town also wanted to retain the ability to back out of the water capture project if its annual maintenance costs proved too high, which the district said it could not allow.)
Currently, parents drop off and pick up students on Camino al Lago, just south of the school. Because the amount of space for cars to wait on campus is limited, the waiting line now backs up on Camino al Lago.
A traffic study commissioned by the school found that traffic congestion at the Alameda/Camino al Lago intersection is at level F, the worst possible level of congestion, with 50 or more seconds of delay and jammed conditions during both morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up times.
"We have this nexus of congestion that is really problematic from a safety standpoint," said Mr. Holm. "We are fearful of a kid getting hurt."
Under the new plan, parents would enter to pick up or drop off students from Alameda directly across from Walsh Road. They would turn left from that same point or turn right from farther north near the edge of the campus.
But many of the speakers Tuesday questioned the need for the traffic signal. One neighbor, who said she had attended Las Lomitas Elementary School as a child and lives off Walsh Road, said the plan would "penalize the people who live on Walsh Road."
"In order to accommodate the 44 percent of parents who are still in their cars," many others would have to spend more time on Alameda de las Pulgas, she said, "so we can make it more convenient for parents to drop off and pick up their kids." The changes would make it harder for Walsh Road area residents to enter and leave their neighborhood, she said.
She also questioned putting a crosswalk across Walsh leading to another that would cross Alameda at the new school entrance. "This is a disaster to have that two-sided crosswalk at Walsh," she said. "That's an accident waiting to happen."
The school's traffic study predicts the light would actually make the wait time at the intersection slightly longer in the morning (from 21.1 seconds to 22.8 seconds) and shorter in the afternoons (from 24.5 seconds to 17.1 seconds).
It would dramatically improve the wait time at the intersection of Camino al Lago and Alameda, however, from 50.9 seconds in the morning to 26.6 seconds and from 59.3 seconds in the afternoon to 20.6 seconds, according to the study.
"I just think the plan needs to go back to the drawing board," said another speaker. "I think it really needs a more heartfelt look."
Other neighbors worried the new plan would just encourage parents to park and drive on neighboring streets. "We're going to see traffic shifting to our street," said one.
Atherton City Council member Rick DeGolia followed up on questions from neighbors who asked why the school is proposing having its entrance moved from a side street to busier Alameda. He asked if the school had carefully studied ways to keep the drop-off where it now is. "It needs to be on Camino al Lago if you can do it," Mr. DeGolia said.
Andrew Lee, an engineer from Parisi Transportation Consulting, which did the traffic study, said the district is still working on the plan. "This is not a final plan by any means," he said. The proposal, however, "should calm traffic down a whole lot," he said. "There would be fewer conflicts with students, especially with traffic control."
The next step for the plan is a presentation at a meeting of Atherton's Transportation Commission on Tuesday, March 13. The meeting is at 6 p.m. in the town's council chambers, 94 Ashfield Road.