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GF PUBLIC SCHOOLS: License to cross

Crossing guard Jeff Rakowski ran out into traffic every few seconds to usher children across the busy i 20th Street and 11th Avenue intersection as school let out at Ben Franklin Elementary School on Wednesday afternoon.

Crossing guard Jeff Rakowski ran out into traffic every few seconds to usher children across the busy i 20th Street and 11th Avenue intersection as school let out at Ben Franklin Elementary School on Wednesday afternoon.

Rakowski, also the parent of a Ben Franklin student, said the high-traffic intersection can be dangerous, especially when motorists disregard posted speed limit signs or use cell phones when driving.

"The problem is mostly with people speeding through," he said. "If we didn't go out with signs, most people wouldn't stop."

A study of how to improve the safety of Grand Forks school crossings and make them more uniform is currently being conducted by Fargo-based Ulteig Engineers.

The Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Metropolitan Planning Organization, which commissioned the study, held a sparsely-attended open house for the public on the study in conjunction with Ulteig Engineers and other community organizations Wednesday night in Grand Forks City Hall.


"We've been working on pedestrian issues around schools for some time," said Patty Olson, a member of the Safe Kids Grand Forks organization, who attended the open house. "We don't want to wait until somebody gets hurt or killed. We want to make sure every kid has a safe way to get to and from school."

The study will examine an already-compiled list of the location and type of school crossings, look at how busy the streets are, the amount of pedestrian traffic, potential safety considerations at crossings, school speed limits present and the need for advance warning of the crossing, among other things. Some crossings may be deemed unnecessary or may receive more or different signage and markings to warn motorists.

Another major goal of the study is to help create a consistent, easily-recognizable system for school crossings, while complying with new federal safety requirements.

"The average driver drives the same route, day in and day out," said Earl Haugen, executive director of the metropolitan planning organization. "They tend to get used to where signs are and tune them out, especially when there are a lot in a small area and they are confusing. We are hoping to present a consistent expectation in drivers for where signs should be and what they mean that will make us safer."

Steve Grabill of Ulteig Engineers said an overabundance of school and pedestrian crossing signs can be confusing to drivers. He also noted that some areas have 25 mph speed limits that quickly drop to 15 mph where overhead flashing school crossings are located and then become 20 mph school zones, all within a few feet of each other.

"Our task at the school district is to provide the safest environment possible," said Jody Thompson, assistant superintendent for elementary and middle school for Grand Forks Public Schools. "Sometimes, we don't look outside our grounds. This allows us to do that and provide safe and convenient neighborhoods around our schools."

Grabill said the study also will examine innovative traffic control strategies like radar screens showing cars the speed limit and how fast they are driving. Other potential different technologies that could be used include flashing lights embedded in the streets at crossings, like the ones at a few pedestrian crossings in East Grand Forks, countdown timers at crossings and verbal warnings to pedestrians that the light is about to change.

Safe Kids Grand Forks and MPO helped commission earlier studies by Fargo-based Advanced Traffic Analysis Center at several local schools looking at crosswalks, traffic cycles and traffic control in areas, including parking lots.


"We have sure benefited from the study," said Cindy Cochran, principal at Century Elementary School. "The changes we made have made a big difference."

The earlier studies showed there was a need for a citywide study, Haugen said.

Similar future studies are planned for several other local schools, but Haugen said the new studies will include a look at how traffic patterns are affected by winter weather.

"The crosswalks are dangerous when snow banks get so high that people can't see," said Deb Dilley as she walked to pick up her son from Ben Franklin on Wednesday.

But parents and staff members interviewed at Ben Franklin had nothing but praise for the school's plan for children being dropped off, picked up and crossing streets, which was developed with help from an Advanced Traffic Analysis Center study.

The plan helped identify an ideal traffic flow, ensured checks to make sure parents are parked in the right place, examined crossing signage and location, educated students and parents on the system and includes enforcement by school officials, said Ben Franklin principal Beth Randklev.

"Typically, it's a seven to nine minute process to move about 350 kids," said Ben Franklin teacher Alice Smith, who was helping make sure the system worked correctly Wednesday. "That's pretty good."

Gary Niemeier, the parent of a Ben Franklin child who volunteers as a crossing guard at the school, said better crossing signs and systems can make a difference, but only go so far.


"Signs are important," he said. "but it comes down to people."

Schuster reports on business. Reach him by phone at (701) 780-1107 or (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; by e-mail at rschuster@gfherald.com or view his business blog at www.areavoices.com/bizbuzz .

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