Traffic study: Interstate Drive might be less congested

CHAMPAIGN — Roads and intersections near a proposed high school site on Interstate Drive have more capacity to handle the 662 cars generated by the school than an alternative site at Spalding Park, a new study says.

But the Spalding Park site would be more attractive for walking and biking, according to the traffic impact analysis by the Regional Planning Commission at the request of the Champaign school district.

And traffic experts said development planned around the Interstate Drive site could have a major impact on traffic flow there in the future.

Planners recommended to the Champaign school board that a longer-term study, looking ahead 20 years, be conducted for whichever site is chosen for the new Central High School. That study should also account for the school's maximum planned capacity of 1,700 students, said M. Sharif Ullah, senior engineer at the planning commission.

The study just completed looked at the traffic impact of a school with 1,300 students and 180 faculty opening in 2017 on both sites:

— 80 acres of undeveloped land at Interstate Drive and Neil Street, north of Market Place Mall;

— About 40 acres in central Champaign that includes Spalding Park and Judah Christian School, 908 N. Prospect Ave., C. 

Here is the study for the Interstate Drive site.

Here is the study for the Spalding site.

For each site, planners looked at six or seven key intersections to gauge existing traffic conditions during the morning peak hour on weekdays, then determined how each would be affected by the addition of 600-plus cars.

For Spalding, the problematic intersection was about a mile to the south, at Prospect and Springfield avenues, which is already congested during the morning rush, according to the study. Delays for motorists there give it a grade of "E" for current conditions, and that fell to an "F" with the additional school traffic factored in. All other intersections studied along Prospect north to Bradley Avenue, as well as Bradley and State Street, scored a "C."

Planners said no new traffic signals would be needed if the school were placed at Spalding Park, though the intersection of Bradley and Harris Street was extensively studied and came "very close" under federal guidelines, Ullah said. Those guidelines include congestion and the number of crashes at the intersection; Bradley/Harris had 11 over the last five years.

To minimize congestion, planners did recommend staggering the start times by an hour at Central and Franklin Middle School, which would be just across Harris Street from the new high school. Currently, Central's day runs from 8:05 a.m. to 3:20 p.m., and Franklin's from 8 a.m. to 2:50 p.m.

If they're too close together, Ullah said, "you would have a lot more congestion than envisioned in this scenario," he said.

Also under the recommendations, Sherwood Terrace, a residential street along the north side of the proposed site, would be one-way westbound in the morning and one-way eastbound in the afternoon.

At both sites, planners recommended separate areas for parent dropoff and school buses, and separate parking for students and staff.

For the Interstate Drive site, no significant capacity issues were found during the morning peak hour, according to the study.

As reported by The News-Gazette last month, planners recommend extending Neil Street, which now ends at Interstate Drive, north to Olympian Drive and putting a four-way stop at Neil and Interstate, with left-turn lanes on Interstate. The "T" intersection at Olympian would include a stop sign on Neil, but not on Olympian, Ullah said. Though those are both busy streets, a stoplight already exists at Olympian and Market Street to the east, he said.

The school would have two access points, from the south on Interstate and from the west on a new road. No new stoplights would be placed at any of the intersections, though four-way stops were recommended along Neil.

Engineers also called for providing continuous sidewalks on the streets around the school. That would include sidewalks on both sides of Neil Street. They also recommend crosswalks and bicycle lanes, and pedestrian signals at intersections along Prospect Avenue at Interstate and Olympian, and at Market Street and Olympian.

Ullah said the two sites are very different.

Interstate Drive has more capacity because that area is still growing, he said. It's marked as a growth area in the city of Champaign's comprehensive plan, which envisions residential, commercial and industrial development around the school.

"If we want to do a comprehensive analysis, we need to take into consideration future land use to the north, east and west," he said.

The Spalding site is in an established neighborhood, where roads have sidewalks and bike lanes, and is "more attractive for walking and biking," Ullah said. It's much closer to the downtown center and to where more students live, he said.

School board members had several questions Monday night, specifically about the proposed traffic flow around a school at Spalding Park.

Board member Kristine Chalifoux wondered whether the line of buses and cars waiting for student drop-off or pick-up along Harris Street would back up across the railroad tracks south of the school.

Ullah said it shouldn't. Planners looked at the worst possible impact by assuming 34 percent of students would drive or be dropped off by car, 66 percent would use buses and none would walk or bike to school. An earlier district survey found about 11 percent of high school students walk or bike to school currently. Also, student drivers would be separated from the drop-off area.

Board member Jamar Brown was concerned about students exiting the school up Harris to Bradley, which would have only a stop sign. That could lead to a bottleneck and back up cars onto the other set of railroad tracks crossing Harris, he said.

Brown said traffic will be an issue at either site.

The Spalding site, if chosen, would need further study because traffic planners used a preliminary site plan before the one released by the district in mid-June, he said. It shows, for instance, student parking west of the school, whereas the district's later plan has it at the east end of the site.

Ullah said planners would work with architects on traffic patterns once a final site map is chosen.

Brown told The News-Gazette on Wednesday that the information presented to board members on the two sites thus far seems to favor Interstate Drive, based on cost, traffic congestion and land available.

"Interstate is what's feasible to me," he said. "I've never really been in favor of eminent domain. I don't want to be the person knocking on someone's door saying 'you have 'X' amount of time to leave' if it's not absolutely necessary."

Central Principal Joe Williams said encouraging students to bike or walk to school requires more than just sidewalks around the school itself.

"Prospect Avenue is a really hard street to cross unless you're in a car or bus," he said. "It's going to be the same at either site. There are lots of places up there (on Interstate Drive) that would be dangerous if students were trying to ride their bikes.

"Right now, there are more students who would ride their bikes if they didn't have to cross these major streets. That's according to students."

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rsp wrote on July 03, 2014 at 10:07 am

Let's be honest here. They want to build a second school at the Interstate Dr. location. They need to study it like they really plan to use it and stop lying about it. "We already have this nice piece of land just sitting here going to waste..."

pattsi wrote on July 03, 2014 at 1:07 pm

I am still awaiting the answer to this question--where will the monies be found to build all of the roadways, sidewalks, and signalizations that are mentioned in the CUUATS report? Right now today on C-SPAN and through other news options, there is discussion concerning the motor fuel taxes, what is generated that is on a downward curve, no one is willing to increase the taxes; yet, we keep building and proposing more roads and sidewalks.

AreaMan wrote on July 03, 2014 at 2:07 pm
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Given that a previous poll done in the high school earlier this year showed that 25% of students arrived by MTD and 60% arrived by car, why are the traffic impact analyses assuming 66% via MTD and 34% via car?

jwr12 wrote on July 03, 2014 at 2:07 pm

I'm struck by the extreme narrowness of these two studies. To be fair, they are what they say they are: estimates of likely impact on traffic of the two locations.  But that is not the only, or even the biggest, transportation issue raised by any potential new high school.  What costs--private, public, social, in both money and time--will be created by the transportation investments needed to support each location?  How many people will have their commute extended, not by 'traffic', but by the daily necessity of having to ferry their children to the far end of town and then reversing to go to work in Urbana, etc.?  How does this compare with the money and time needed to get kids to the Spalding site?  How many people will--because of the inconvenience of one or the other site, in time or money -- find themselves having to alter their lives, purchase new cars, rearrange their work schedules, etc.?  How compatible is such a greater investment in cars and fuel with our likely future of fuel scarcity and the need to cut carbon emissions? To what extent will locking ourselves into a site that by definition is unwalkable and unbikeable prevent us from not merely maintaining, but raising the number of students who can get themselves to school on foot or by other self-powered transport?  How do seasons affect all this? (Surely many students commute in different ways at different points in the year)?

What we need is a broader analysis of potential transportation costs, not merely a focus on traffic.  To focus on traffic is really to miss the forest for the trees here.

parkmymeterelsewhere wrote on July 03, 2014 at 5:07 pm

just a repeat performance of the false statistical analysis used to interpret the traffic count for the Olympian drive project; a staff member in CUATTS uses a computer program to declare how many cars will be generated in a 24 hour period if a high school is opened.  WHERE DOES THE ORIGIN of the base- premised figure to do the computation come from?  Out of the farm dirt? Out of the developers wallet? No-out of the mouths of the School board TO SUPPORT their proposal.  Using CUATTS doesn't validate anything- all it does is alert the taxpayer to the secret, closed, landgrabbing bureaucracies that exist in champaign county.

just_wondering wrote on July 06, 2014 at 6:07 pm

Yes, because traffic congestion in C-U should be everyone's main concern. Are you serious? It's Champaign! This isn't a city or sprawling metropolis. This is the cornfields people. Get a clue. OMG, it might take 10 more minutes to get to work if you have to drop off your kid "way up there" - for 4 years of your life or less, per kid. Wow. A handful of years of "pain" is going to sway your opinion? Sheesh. I thought this town considered itself educated. Y'all are damn fortunate. Move to a real city and you will be desperately wishing for just an extra 10 minutes.

justthefacts wrote on July 07, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Traffic congestion is not a real issue in Champaign/Urbana and won't be within any reasonable planning time frame. This is not a real urban area. In fact, if Champaign were in a real urban area it would be a small to mid-size suburb. What is real is that the school population is growing and will continue to grow. There is a need for expanded/improved facilities now and that need will continue into the future. It seems to me very shortsighted to build a new facilty on site that does not allow for any future expansion.

What is also real is the fact that all the land between I-74 and Olympian Drive is going to be developed and will eventually require water,sewer, roads, police and fire service, etc. If the Interstate Drive site is not occupied by a school it will be used for some other purpose such as offices, apartments, single family homes, retail space, etc. How much money should be spent on athletic facilities should not be the determining factor in deciding where to build the new high school.

Finally, the need is to replace Central High School, not relocate it. The new school should have an entirely new name.