Building a new Central High School on Interstate Drive would add 662 cars to that area during school dropoff and pickup times, a new traffic analysis shows. But a senior engineer says the additional cars wouldn't coincide with peak traffic times on North Prospect Avenue or around Market Place Mall.
CHAMPAIGN — Building a new Central High School on Interstate Drive would add 662 cars to that area during school dropoff and pickup times, a new traffic analysis shows.
Champaign schools questions? Give 'em to us here 
But a senior engineer says the additional cars wouldn't coincide with peak traffic times on North Prospect Avenue or around Market Place Mall.
The Champaign County Regional Planning Commission did the study at the request of the Champaign school district, to gauge the impact of the project on traffic in the area and to make safety recommendations. A draft report was submitted to the district last week, according to M. Sharif Ullah, senior engineer at the planning commission.
A similar traffic analysis on the Spalding Park-Judah Christian school site could be completed by the end of next week, he said.
The 80-acre site just north of Market Place Mall lies at the northeast corner of Interstate Drive and Neil Street, south of Olympian Drive.
Engineers were not given a specific site plan but were told to assume the main entrance would be at Interstate and Neil, Ullah said.
They recommend extending Neil Street, which now ends at Interstate Drive, north to Olympian Drive and putting a four-way stop at Neil and Interstate. The "T" intersection with 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.
Engineers also called for providing continuous sidewalks on the streets around the school, as existing sidewalks are interrupted in several locations. 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.
The study analyzed the traffic impact based on Central's current student population, Ullah said, even though that would change because Unit 4 plans to redistrict high school boundaries before the new school is completed. Another study likely will be done after redistricting, based on the new student population, Ullah said.
Engineers used district figures on how many students take buses or cars to school, he said. The study was based on an enrollment of 1,300, though the school will eventually have a capacity of 1,700.
It did not include cost projections for the improvements, Ullah said. The school district will develop cost figures as it plans the high school project, he said.
The study also does not include details such as turn lanes into the school, because no detailed parking layout was available, he said.
Superintendent Judy Wiegand said Wednesday she had not yet seen the report.
Ullah said the 662 extra cars in the morning dropoff would not impose a traffic burden, as the 8:05 a.m. start time comes before most big-box stores on North Prospect Avenue and at Market Place Mall are open. The afternoon is busier, but the 3:20 p.m. dismissal time falls before the peak afternoon traffic hour of roughly 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., he said.
"Typically around the mall or North Prospect, the worst traffic conditions are on Fridays or during the weekends, or during lunchtime, or in the afternoon peak hour," he said. "If it coincided with typical peak hour, it would be much worse."
Asked about the impact of students who go out for lunch, Ullah said that wasn't within the scope of the study.
The study assumed no students would walk or bike to school, in order to plan for the maximum possible number of drivers on the road, he said. However, the traffic-impact study of the Spalding site will assume some students walk and bike to school because that site is "more accessible for walkers and bikers," he said.
Ullah said planners are also working with the Illinois Department of Transportation to get traffic counts on major roadways, including Prospect Avenue at University Avenue, Church Street, Bloomington Road and Bradley Avenue. That will help them determine what upgrades or signal changes may be needed at various intersections if a new school is built in Spalding Park, he said.
An earlier study by the Regional Planning Commission, released in December, estimated that it would take 4.2 more minutes on average to drive to the Interstate Drive site than the current Central High School. The average extra travel distance was 2.5 miles.
That study used school district and census data for all current students and measured how long it would take each of them to get to the potential sites still under consideration last fall, then computed an average. It compared that data to average travel times and distances to the two high existing high schools, said Andrew Levy, planner and sustainability coordinator for the planning commission.
The figures were based on the fastest route from students' homes, as determined by road networks and speed limits, he said.
But they did not take traffic congestion or time of day into account, as that data is typically part of a more detailed traffic analysis, Levy said.
Some parents have criticized the district for using that 4-minute figure to minimize the potential drive time to the proposed site.
The study also didn't show how many students fall within each distance — say a 1-minute drive or a 5-minute drive — though engineers have that raw data, Levy said.
"This was really intended as a cursory overview," he said. "If everything is equal, this is what we would expect."
He noted that the district extends 4.5 miles north of the city limits, and 5 miles west of the city limits, and "there are students who travel a considerable distance."
The study also came up with a "friendliness rating" for each site, for people who walk, bike and take mass transit to school. It included factors such as current MTD boundaries, traffic volumes and sidewalk infrastructure near the site to determine how easy it would be for a student to walk or bike to school, Levy said.
Central was given a 12 out of 12. The parcel that became the Interstate Drive site scored 7 out of 12, as did several other proposed sites; some scored lower.
Traffic volume at the Interstate Drive site was comparable to the other sites, and to Central, at this point, but "a lot will change when the site develops," Levy said.
The site is close to the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District boundaries, Levy said, "but it's some distance from an actual route. MTD would need to extend a line" to make the school more accessible by bus, he said.
And the pedestrian infrastructure "is not there," Levy said. Central has 27.5 miles of sidewalks within a half-mile radius, whereas the Interstate Drive site has 1.9 miles.
Highlights of a traffic analysis of the proposed new Central High School site on Interstate Drive:
— Main entrance would be at Neil Street and Interstate Drive.
— Project would add 662 cars to the area during school drop-off and pick-up times.
— Neil Street should be extended north from Interstate to Olympian Drive.
— Sidewalks should be continuous on streets approaching the school.
— Adequate crosswalks should be installed, some mid-block to provide safe access.
— Pedestrian signals should be added at Prospect Avenue and Interstate Drive, Prospect and Olympian Drive, and Market Street and Olympian Drive.
— Parent drop-off and bus drop-off locations should be separated, as well as student and staff parking.
— Drop-off zones should be visible to drivers.
How Central High School and the proposed Interstate Drive site match up:
Category Central Interstate Drive Avg. driving distance to school 2.92 miles 6.02 miles Avg. travel time to school 7.32 minutes 11.54 minutes Sidewalks within a half-mile 27.5 miles 1.9 miles Pedestrian access points5818 Distance to nearest MTD route 0 miles 0.9 miles
Source: Champaign County Regional Planning Commission school site evaluation report