Both Fort River And Wildwood Sites Present Traffic Challenges For New School

Current traffic pattern at Fort River School. Photo: Elementary School Building Committee

Report On The Meeting Of The Elementary School Building Committee, May 6, 2022

Both the traffic study and potential for a two- or three-story new elementary school were discussed at a community forum on May 5 and at a meeting for staff earlier that day. The recording of the community forum will eventually be available on the town’s YouTube channel. This meeting was conducted over Zoom and was recorded. The selection of the preferred option for the new school’s siting and whether it should be new or an addition/renovation, and two- or-three story will be made at the June 24 meeting for submission to the Massachusetts School Building Association (MSBA) on June 27.

Traffic Study At The Fort River Site
Tim Thomson and David Loring from Pare Corporation presented an evaluation of the traffic patterns at both sites. At Fort River, bus and private vehicle drop-off and pick-up locations are separate, with separate loops of traffic. The arrangement works well, but requires a heavy staff presence. The problems with the site involve the intersections of Main Street and East Street and College Street and South East Street. Possible solutions involve widening South East Street, expanding the left-turn lane onto Main Street, modernizing the traffic lights at Main and College Streets, or possibly creating a roundabout at Main Street. Consideration will also be given to changing the exit from the school to the south driveway.

Lead architect Donna DiNisco noted that the MSBA will not fund traffic improvements. The town will be responsible for traffic improvements at either site, but the cost of improvements for each site will be estimated so that they can be compared.. 

Wildwood Assistant Principal Allison Estes said that traffic near Fort River has long been a problem and that improvements will be needed whether the school project is built there or not, especially with the planned housing developments in the area. And Town Councilor Ellisha Walker (at large) noted that traffic from the southeast part of town will traverse the South East Street intersections, even if the school is built at the Wildwood site.

Traffic At The Wildwood Site Also Presents Challenges
Thomson said that morning and afternoon traffic near the Wildwood School is congested and is projected to get worse if the school population increases . As at Fort River, bus and private vehicle drop-off areas are separate, and heavy staff presence is required for safety.

The consultants recommend that if the Wildwood site is used, the school driveway exit to Strong Street should be replaced by a roundabout to slow down traffic on Strong Street and to improve traffic flow. The difference in elevation between the parking lot and Strong Street, and the poor sight lines due to the curve and slope of the road do not allow for construction of a second driveway. In addition, there are traffic problems at the intersection of Strong Street and East Pleasant Street, and the consultants are still studying possible solutions to that situation.

Fort River Principal Tamara Daley-Sullivan asked if the consultants had looked at pedestrian and bicycle traffic to both sites. Thomson replied that the majority of students are driven to the schools, either by parents or school bus, and that pedestrian and bicycle issues are less complex than private cars and school buses. He said they will be dealt with later, after selection of the site. School Superintendent Mike Morris noted that many students walk to Wildwood from the neighborhoods near Strong Street as well as near the Middle School. Walker pointed out that there are several neighborhoods near the Fort River school as well, such as Watson Farms, Colonial Village, and the soon-to-be-built affordable housing projects at the East Street School and on Belchertown Road. (The initial traffic study observed six pedestrians at Fort River and five at Wildwood during morning arrival.)

Three-Story Building Offers Advantages Over Two-Story One
At the May 5 meeting for staff attended by 18 people, two expressed a preference for a three-story building. The others did not give input. Morris echoed the preference for a three-story building on both cost and environmental grounds. Morris and the two principals on the committee visited a three-story school in Springfield and were impressed with how quiet the hallways were. With two grades per floor in a three-story building, corridors would be shorter and fewer students would be on each floor. However, a three-story building might present some challenges for special education programs that involve students from multiple grades.

Evaluation Matrix Developed To Aid In Final Decision For Submission To MSBA
Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) Chair Cathy Schoen presented a comprehensive matrix to evaluate and compare the sites. The Fort River site is 31 acres as opposed to 14 acres at Wildwood. Fort River has 12.8 buildable acres and 19.8 usable acres as opposed to 10.5 buildable and usable acres at Wildwood. If geothermal heating is chosen as an energy source, selecting Wildwood might require agreement from  the regional schools if the Middle School field would be used for the geothermal well. Many other factors are incorporated into the matrix and will be discussed at the May 20 ESBC meeting.

Public Comment
Maria Kopicki objected to the late posting of the traffic study and the district’s responses to the MSBA comments on the preliminary design plan. The latter document will be discussed at the May 20 meeting. She also pointed out that a vote was taken to accept the selection matrix when it was not posted on the agenda.

Tony Cunningham also asked when the committee would  be discussing the comments from the MSBA and the draft responses from the district, as some may impact the floor plan and space summary. Cunningham also asked that the draft Basis of Design Narrative that will be sent to the cost estimators on May 15 be posted publicly today so it can be reviewed and feedback can be offered by committee members and the public.

Rudy Perkins urged the committee to include the costs of improving the intersection of Strong Street and East Pleasant Street in the cost of traffic improvements for the Wildwood site. He also asked that the costs of the playing fields at each site be separated from the total cost because there is a great difference in the amount  of available acreage at the two sites.

Future Meetings
The committee decided that it will not meet on May 13. The next meeting will be May 20. Cost estimates for the various proposals will be provided prior to the June 3 meeting. Because the last day of school is June 17, the meeting scheduled for that day has been moved up to Monday, June 13. At the following meeting on June 24, the final site and basic design of the building (whether it should be an addition and renovation, or new construction, and two stories or three stories) will be decided.

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