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."