Pleasant Valley directors question PennDOT project manager on roundabouts
Chestnuthill Township Chairman Chuck Gould and state Senator Mario Scavello met with members of the Pleasant Valley School Board and school administrators to discuss the district’s concerns with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s plans to build a roundabout at the main entrance to the high school. State Rep. Jack Rader was present as well. JUDY DOLGOS-KRAMER/TIMES NEWS
The Pleasant Valley school board directors are still questioning the location and the use of school property in conjunction with Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s decision to place a roundabout at the main entrance of the high school.
The roundabout in question will be part of a project to realign Routes 115 and 209 in Chestnuthill Township. A larger roundabout will be placed where the two roads currently converge, the smaller of the two roundabouts will be located at the entrance to the Pleasant Valley High School.
On Monday, the district invited local elected officials to a building and grounds meeting along with PennDOT Project Manager Donald E. Lerch to discuss the project and to restate the board’s concerns.
“I have driven in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for many years, and I have driven on circles and more recently roundabouts, so I am familiar with them,” said school board Director Daniel Wunder. “Can you tell me how many roundabouts are located at public school entrances, if any? Because I know I have never seen any.”
Lerch said he is unaware of any but reiterated that the roundabout design is safer than the alternatives for that section of road.
The area under consideration for the realignment is heavily traveled and often sees standstill traffic throughout the day.
“There is a high number of accidents on the sections which are resulting from left-hand turns,” Lerch said. He attributed the number of left-hand turns to the high number of commercial properties along that stretch of road.
“You have two, or actually three options in this case,” Lerch said. “You can add a center turning lane; a center median, which would stop the turns, but would cause traffic to use other commercial properties to turn around; or you can build the roundabout, which is the safest of the options.”
Lerch said the center turning lane, which would still require widening Route 209 in the area, would create a whole new group of safety issues which would include the need for turning traffic to at times be head-to-head in the lane.
Left-hand turns are a serious safety concern, Lerch said.
“You have cars that stop in traffic waiting to make the turn, and in turn getting hit from the rear, or you have a driver that gets impatient and tries to make the turn when it isn’t safe,” Lerch said.
Modern roundabouts eliminate left-hand turns. Traffic coming west from the Route 115 split past the high school will not be able to turn left because there are four lanes of traffic and a center median in the new design. The driver must enter the roundabout at the school’s entrance, stay to the inside lane and exit going east so that the commercial property they wish to enter is on the right-hand side of the vehicle.
Director Ken Cocuzzo said the district would prefer to see the roundabout moved roughly a hundred yards west to the entrance of the football stadium and the bus depot.
In designing the project, Lerch said PennDOT needed to look at what would cause the least impact on all properties in the area, not just the school district.
He said moving the roundabout to the location preferred by the district would have significant impact on other nearby commercial properties along the roadway. That proposal would involve widening the road further west than currently being considered, including likely taking one bank property and two strip malls, while still affecting the same properties east of the smaller roundabout.
“I for one am not a fan of these roundabouts myself, so I am surprised to be saying this,” said state Sen. Mario Scavello. “But I have been at all of these meetings and I have seen the computer models and for this amount of traffic these things work. I can’t believe it, but I am supporting this.”
District Superintendent David Piperato expressed his thanks for a better understanding of why PennDOT has chosen the location that it had, but also expressed an ongoing concern for hundreds of visitors and student drivers who will be using the roundabout to enter and exit the school.
Piperato also expressed concerns with the design making it unsafe for school safety personnel to assist in egress from both the high school and the middle school for buses and students. The district continues to have concerns over the timing for buses departing the middle school turning left onto Route 115.
“If the buses lose even a few minutes, it affects the entire schedule,” Piperato said. “If the timing becomes unpredictable, we would need to add buses, and that is an expense the district is not prepared to undertake.”
Lerch and Scavello agreed that this was something that PennDOT could look at again and get back to the district.
Chestnuthill Township Chairman Chuck Gould suggested that changing the traffic signal timing during those times might ease the situation.
Lerch said that it was a good idea and certainly something that would be considered.
The other issue that is of major concern to the district turned out to be the retention basins needed to catch runoff from the road surfaces.
The draft plan shows two very large catch basins on school property. The one furthest to the west is located on property that has potential for further expansion by the district but is currently not used. The second basin is located between a ball field and Route 115 and is shown as an underground basin on the plans.
According to the district, this section of property is used for a number of things, such as practice fields and parking during football games.
Lerch said the underground basin would instead be above ground, making the property unusable to the district.
“You yourself just said that you are taking the best places for water retention,” Director Robert Serfass said. “You are not leaving us anywhere to grow. If we expand on our property, where do we go for water retention?”
Scavello agreed to go back to PennDOT on behalf of the district to try to find a better solution to the water retention issue. It was suggested that another meeting would be scheduled to discuss the response.
Gould said the township has had numerous meetings and discussions with PennDOT regarding the roundabouts. He has come to the conclusion that it is the correct approach.
Gould said he believes the growth seen in the past by Chestnuthill is likely to return in the future.
“These shifts, they run in cycles,” he said. “You look at the growth from the 1970s and I don’t doubt that it will come back. It’s a question of will we be ready or will we not be ready.
“I am not a guy that likes a lot of change, and I can’t think of a better answer to the traffic problem.”
Lerch said the project start date is expected to be sometime late next year. Lerch said no work would be done in front of the school during the school year, but as with any road project there would definitely be impacts.
The project is expected to last about two and a half years.
Scavello acknowledged that since safety is the major concern driving the project, that 90 to 95 percent of the project will be funded with federal money.
“You should be happy that we are getting things done in this area. We are getting much-needed attention,” Scavello said. “Once this is done we will be looking further east down 209, past 715 and dealing with those problems.”