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  1. Education

District, county hope to alleviate Strawberry Crest traffic woes

DOVER — With Hillsborough County students returning to school Tuesday, Strawberry Crest High School principal David Brown won't take chances when it comes to controlling traffic, especially with a projected 2015 enrollment of 2,280 students, including 700 freshmen.

Brown will be out helping direct traffic as he's done in past years, but he believes changes made by the district, in conjunction with Hillsborough County, will help alleviate the school's congestion problems.

"We've implemented a few changes" Brown said. "We'll be putting more personnel out front at drop-off points in the morning so we can make sure to fully utilize the entire drop-off queue area and get in and out as soon as possible.

"Some parents were stopping short of that queue and it was causing a backup problem, along with safety issues for kids who had to cross over that traffic."

Ongoing traffic issues at Strawberry Crest and adjacent Bailey Elementary have concerned the Hillsborough County School District, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Hillsborough County Public Works Department for several years. The only entrance and exit to the high school is a four-way intersection on Gallagher Road just north of heavily-traveled U.S. 92. Traffic from the two schools has backed up onto U.S. 92.

Mike Williams, the division director for the county's transportation planning and development department, said the county opted to change the previous traffic flow in front of the school to avoid the costly expense of building new queue lanes. Williams noted that county officials will be on hand the first day of school to see if further adjustments need to be made.

"We helped change the traffic pattern at the parent drop-off," Williams said. Now cars can turn right at the intersection and then go through the main parking lot to drop off their children."

"We've worked very closely with the county on the traffic pattern at Strawberry Crest," added Tanya Arja, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Public Schools. Usually, by the first couple of weeks of school, everybody knows where they're going and it should ease up a bit."

Potentially adding to the woes is Independence Academy, a charter elementary and middle school with an enrollment of 800 students that moved last spring from Plant City to a new campus on the northeast corner of U.S. 92 and McIntosh Road, less than a half mile from Strawberry Crest and Bailey.

Independence cited no traffic issues during its first semester in existence. Principal Shane Clark said the school has enough space on the property to queue all the incoming cars coming from U.S. 92 and there is no school bus service.

It helps that county zoning requirements call for the charter to stagger its school day hours to avoid conflicts with Strawberry Crest and Bailey. Strawberry Crest begins at 7:30 a.m., Bailey at 8 a.m. Independent takes in its elementary students at 8:15 a.m. and middle school students at 8:45 a.m.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White said Independence also must submit annual traffic flow reports to the county as part of the special zoning granted to the school.

With a daughter who attends Strawberry Crest, White is more than an interested observer. He says if the changes at Strawberry Crest don't improve traffic flow, he will continue to call for the opening of Newsome Road, which flows east from Strawberry Crest to McIntosh Road and runs parallel to Interstate 4. It has been closed since Strawberry Crest opened in 2009.

According to Williams, the Florida Department of Transportation currently opposes using Newsome, a narrow artery, because of its close proximity to I-4 entrance and exit ramps.

White said he also wants to study changes to the timing of U.S. 92 traffic lights at McIntosh Road and Gallagher Road.

Meanwhile, Brown continues to take all the necessary precautions to avoid gridlock. In addition to modifying the parent drop-off queues and increasing school personnel at morning arrival stops, a letter about the new traffic pattern, was sent home to parents and posted online.

Brown said the letter encouraged carpools and asked parents and students to arrive by 7 a.m. It also reminded parents this isn't a good time to have students practice driving.

"That can be done after school," Brown said.

Contact Kathryn Moschella at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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