Caltrans agrees to pay for new signal

By Corey Pride / Cpride@losbanosenterprise.comMarch 22, 2013 

The California Department of Transportation has committed to paying for a traffic light near Los Banos' newest elementary school, taking a financial burden away from the district and guaranteeing Mercey Springs Elementary will open next August.

"I spoke with (Caltrans) about a week ago and they shared with us they would pay for it. We asked them to put it in writing and they agreed," Superintendent Steve Tietjen said. "We're pleased. We're very happy with the outcome."

Last year Los Banos Unified School District asked California Department of Transportation to let Mercey Springs Elementary School open before a traffic signal was completed. The school will open near Scripps Drive and Highway 165. Initially, Caltrans said no, indicating the school would cause extra traffic on the highway. Months of three-way negotiations -- the district, city officials and Caltrans -- resulted in a proposal for a pedestrian-operated light at the intersection, which would cost about $200,000. The figure was a compromise to having a regular traffic light at a cost to the district of up to $600,000.

The district's revised traffic study emphasizes the school will be a College Greens neighborhood facility with the vast majority of students in the attendance boundary living east of Highway 165 and south of Highway 152, therefore not adding to highway traffic. Students living in apartments on Gilbert Gonzalez Jr. Drive will be taken by bus to the new campus.

The traffic study convinced Caltrans officials last month to give Tietjen preliminary approval to open the school. Last week when Caltrans agreed to spend its money to purchase the light, officials from the state agency said it wouldn't be installed until the school's enrollment reaches a certain threshhold.

"They're going to pay for the light when it gets close to 400 students," Tietjen said.

He said so far there are 254 students expected to attend the kindergarten through sixth-grade facility. The high-end projection for the school's opening-day population is 330, Tietjen said.

At last month's school board meeting, Chase Hurley, the board president, said he's concerned about the high school students who cross the highway intersection on their way to class.

"To me, other than the occasional jogger moving back and forth, those are kids," Hurley said. "We don't want to be sitting here with a lawsuit, and irregardless of that, knowing somebody got hit."

Hurley explained his comment Tuesday.

"My whole goal was to get that light in before the school opened," he said. "My comfort level is there (with Caltrans' plan). We will just have to be diligent with our kids who will be getting out of school."

He said Mercey Springs Elementary will decrease traffic at Highway 165 and Scripps Drive because many parents will no longer be driving through that intersection to take their children to Charleston Elementary School.

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