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Dr. Delay: Is heavy school traffic a myth or reality?

A Palm Harbor resident says that traffic about 3 p.m. near Highland Lakes Elementary School is an “absolute gridlock.”
Vehicles pass close to one another as drivers avoid a long line of stopped vehicles, right, Oct. 31 in Palm Harbor. Residents in the area of Highland Lakes Elementary School are complaining about the traffic jams caused when school is let out for the day. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Nov. 4

PALM HARBOR— As Floridians, we expect high volumes of traffic year-round with summer vacations, the start of school and the routine snowbirds who flock southward to escape the cold winters up north.

If you’ve lived here long enough, you know which roads to avoid and when to avoid them.

But if you live close to a school, you may not have that luxury.

Take Craig Enenbach, for example, who lives almost within walking distance of Highland Lakes Elementary, which is on one of the area’s main arteries, Highlands Boulevard.

He told the Doc that every school day about 3 p.m. is an “absolute gridlock.”

“Cars are lined up for many blocks, waiting to pick up their children, in both directions,” Enenbach said. “No non-school vehicles can move.”

Enenbach worries that a disaster would occur if an emergency vehicle tried to navigate the area because there isn’t a lane for cars to navigate past the school.

A driver maneuvers over the yellow dividing line, right, to avoid a long line of stopped vehicles Oct. 31 in Palm Harbor. Residents in the area of Highland Lakes Elementary School are complaining about the traffic jams caused when school is let out for the day. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

It’s a problem I’m sure many commuters across Tampa Bay face when school ends, and something local government agencies know exists.

Thomas Washburn, who oversees traffic engineering with Pinellas County Public Works, said the problem got worse when the recession hit and the county cut back on school buses.

“A lot of the schools weren’t designed with the pickup and drop off loops to handle that kind of demand,” he said.

It’s a frequent complaint the county gets in the first few weeks of school, according to Washburn. And Highlands Boulevard was one source of them.

“We try to leave it up to the school," he said.

“We ask (complainants) to give it a couple of weeks and get back to us, and if it doesn’t get better within a couple of weeks, we send someone out there to check it out," he said. "But we never did get contacted again.”

That’s until the Doc intervened.

Washburn sent his crew out to investigate the matter on Oct. 31 and reported back to the Doc that they didn’t see the type of delays and backups that were reported.

In the report obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, the crew documented traffic activity about every five minutes from 2:45 p.m. until 3:45 p.m., when all the traffic cleared. Crew members often noticed vehicles heading eastbound on Highlands Boulevard wait for the opposing westbound traffic to clear so they could go around the parked carpool vehicles. It reportedly took less than 30 seconds for two vehicles they observed to pass the line and continue driving east.

But they also understand one observation is not enough.

The county plans to perform two more observations this week during dismissal times to determine if any changes are needed.

If so, the county may request help from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office or simply stress the issue to crossing guards.

In the meantime, he suggests visiting the Pinellas County Schools’ website to complete the Travel to School Safety Concerns form. Forms are forwarded to the appropriate governmental agency for review and possible corrective action.

If you’re not in Pinellas County, but have a similar headache with school traffic congestion, visit your respective school district website for more information.

Not in the mood to do either?

Well, the Doc suggests you cue up Gloria Gaynor’s classic, I Will Survive, and it might go by a little faster. If not, you’ll at least have fun singing while you wait it out.

TRAFFIC UPDATES AND CLOSURES:

Hernando County:

  • Lane closures through Friday for State Road 50 (Cortez Boulevard) widening from Windmere Road/Bronson Boulevard to U.S. 98 from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Lane closures continue 24 hours a day through Saturday for U.S. 98 new bridge construction of Suncoast Parkway 2, a half-mile on each side of Suncoast Parkway (State Road 589).

Hillsborough County:

  • Lane closures through Friday for Interstate 275 for operational improvements from west of State Road 60 (Exit 39) to Lois Avenue (Exit 40B) from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.
  • Lane closures through Friday for U.S. Business 41 (Highland Avenue and W. Violet Street) for roadway/pedestrian improvements from Florida Avenue to Ida Street from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Intermittent lane closures through Saturday for U.S. 41 repaving from Bullfrog Creek to Denver Street from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Nightly lane closures through Saturday for State Road 60 operational improvements at SR 589 from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.
  • Lane closures through Friday at SR 60 under I-275 from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.
  • Nightly lane closures through Friday for SR 60 traffic signal upgrades from Armenia Avenue to Brevard Avenue from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
  • Lane closures with flagging operations through Saturday for County Road 580 widening from east of Paul Buchman Highway to Park Road from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Lane closures through Friday on County Road 587 (West Shore Boulevard) from Lemon Street to Gray Street from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.
  • Intermittent lane closures through Friday for County Road 672 (Big Bend Road) bridge replacement from Dickman Road to Wyandotte Road from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Pasco County:

  • Intermittent lane closures through Friday on State Road 54 at Starkey Boulevard constructing new Starkey Gap /Tri-County Trail from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Pinellas County:

  • Southbound-only lane closures through Friday for I-275 interchange improvements at 22nd Avenue S from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  • Lane closures continue through Saturday for Alternate U.S. 19 (Fourth Avenue N) repaving from Fifth Avenue N to Third Street N from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m.
  • Intermittent lane closures through Friday for Alt. U.S. 19 (Myrtle Avenue) repaving from SR 60 (Chestnut Street) to Mohawk Street from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Nightly lane closures through Saturday for State Road 679 (Pinellas Bayway Structure E) bridge replacement and repaving from north of Yacht Club Lane to SR 682 from 8:30 p.m. to 7 a.m.
  • Nightly lane closures through Friday State Road 682 (54th Avenue S) repaving from US 19 to 41st Street S
  • Intersection lighting improvements at various locations causing lane closures through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.:
    • State Road 688 (Ulmerton Road) between Hamlin Boulevard in Largo and Feather Sound Drive in St. Petersburg.
    • State Road 586 (Curlew Road) between Alt 19/Bayshore in Dunedin and Tampa Road in Oldsmar.
    • State Road 580 between Patricia Avenue in Dunedin and McMullen Booth Road in Palm Harbor.
  • Expect delays and congestion in Dunedin for the Wines the Blues special event this weekend from 5 a.m. Saturday to 7 a.m. Sunday on Main Street from Broadway to Milwaukee Avenue, on Virginia Lane from Main Street to Douglas Avenue, and on Douglas Avenue from Monroe Street to Scotland Street. Emergency vehicles will have access at all times.

Gateway Expressway (new tolled roadway system) updates:

  • Lane closures through Saturday on I-275 from south of Gandy Boulevard (Exit 28) to Fourth Street N (Exit 32) and on I-275 northbound Exit 30 ramp to westbound State Road 686 (Roosevelt Boulevard) and westbound 118th Avenue (County Road 296) from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
  • Lane closures through Saturday at U.S. 19 Frontage Roads from 110th Avenue N to 126th Avenue N, on the SR 686 (Roosevelt Boulevard) entrance ramp to the Bayside Bridge, on SR 686 (Roosevelt Boulevard) from SR 688 (Ulmerton Road) to 49th Street N, and on SR 686 (Roosevelt Boulevard) from 28th Street N. to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Monique Welch is a staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times, and the voice behind Dr. Delay. Send your traffic concerns, questions, and pictures of roadway troubles you spot in your travels around the Tampa Bay area to docdelay@tampabay.com. Follow @AskDrDelay.

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