Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Education

School, Dunedin officials seeking 'hazardous' designation for kids' walking route

DUNEDIN — A campaign is under way by the Pinellas County School District and city leaders to get the Florida Department of Education to declare at least one portion of State Road 580 too dangerous for elementary school students to cross.

The city is working with a consultant to gather crash and citation statistics, which the school district will submit to FDOE along with data outlining worries about the five-lane thoroughfare's unique layout near downtown.

The hope is that the state agency will deem the intersection "hazardous" and, in turn, continue funding bus service next school year for about 50 San Jose Elementary students.

A Pinellas school district review that recalculated the students' distance from a different entrance determined the children actually live within San Jose's 2-mile walk zone, so they don't qualify for busing. The December announcement stoked fears among parents, city officials and school leaders about youngsters having to walk and battle rush-hour traffic on the major road.

"We're going to work together to paint the picture of 580 and that intersection," said Mayor Dave Eggers. "There are some extenuating circumstances there that might allow the DOE to see that as a hazardous intersection."

The strategy was borne out of a meeting last week among Eggers, City Manager Rob DiSpirito, transportation engineer Joan Rice, public works director Doug Hutchens, schools superintendent Mike Grego and associate schools superintendent Michael Bessette.

Officials say the meeting cleared up several fallacies about school district miscommunication and procedures. For example, it's the FDOE's transportation department — not the Florida Department of Transportation — that determines busing criteria and reimburses school districts about 55 percent of the cost of transporting students outside the 2-mile walk zone. Busing San Jose students without financial help would be hard on the Pinellas district, which has cut about $160 million from its budget in recent years, Bessette said.

Officials also discussed FDOE policy, which doesn't consider a signalized intersection "hazardous" unless 4,000 or more vehicles use it daily. Peak rush-hour traffic counts show 1,400 cars a day use SR 580.

Bessette said the intersection where SR 580 meets Main Street, Skinner Boulevard and Bass Boulevard is actually among 11 five-lane roads and five six-lane roads whose designations district officials want changed.

Hazard designations currently only apply to elementary school crossings. A few years ago, Bessette said, the Florida Legislature rejected a bill to extend the busing rules to middle and high schools — primarily because of the massive dollar impact it would have on a state full of multilane roads.

In the San Jose Elementary case, he said, it is unclear whether the FDOE would have to lobby the Legislature for a statute change, or whether the FDOE can make a "singular exception" based on the intersection's uniqueness.

Either way, school and city officials think the intersection has a good shot at a rule change because of the:

• Westbound downhill grade, which tends to cause motorists to pick up speed as they approach the intersection's traffic light. "It's not unusual for people to blow through that intersection," DiSpirito said.

• Intersection configuration. It is built on a 45-degree, Y-shaped angle. A sign forbids drivers turning right off Main Street onto SR 580 to do so on a red light.

"But people do it anyway," DiSpirito said, adding that the intersection is confusing to unfamiliar motorists who incorrectly believe they are turning into a merge lane when they are really entering oncoming traffic's right-of-way. "The Sheriff's Office catches people doing it all the time. It's a violation and, more importantly, it's a concern if we establish a crosswalk there because they would turn directly into that crosswalk."

If the intersection is deemed dangerous, Bessette said, the district would expand bus eligibility beyond the most immediately affected 50 kids living in a 1-square-mile area of the school zone's southeast corner to all 100 living south of SR 580.

There's no guarantee a bill would be written or passed by the time busing is eliminated for those San Jose students in August, Bessette said. But DiSpirito said Dunedin leaders would "without question" install a crosswalk and crossing guards if needed.

"It's never been an issue of whether the city can afford this. It was, should we? Should the kids be put in this situation?" DiSpirito said.

Meanwhile, Bessette said, the school district will provide San Jose administrators with information to distribute about alternatives, such as carpools or the walking school bus concept in which parents take turns accompanying students on their school commute.

"We don't leave the families just saying 'Too bad, figure it out,' " Bessette said. "We're going to work with them whatever way we can to get the kids to school safely."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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