Drivers traveling past the Fort Atkinson Middle School on South Fourth Street will notice the pavement looks a bit different in spots, and those who dare to brave the area at certain points in the morning and afternoon will definitely see a change in the traffic pattern — for the better.
These changes are thanks to a collaborative effort between the School District of Fort Atkinson and the City of Fort Atkinson toward increasing traffic safety and efficiency around Fort Atkinson Middle School, which traditionally has been a hot spot for congestion and driver/pedestrian confusion.
According to Dr. Robert Abbott, Fort Atkinson Middle School principal, the effort began in the fall of 2017, when Andy Selle, city engineer of Fort Atkinson, approached the school district about applying for a Safe Routes to School (SRTS) grant from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
“As part of that process, a consulting group from Madison came out and did traffic audits and made observations. They then met with city, police and school personnel,” Abbott explained. “And there was a parent survey that went out, too.”
Selle said the grant covered 80 percent of the cost of the study, with the remaining 20 percent split between the city and school district. It was determined that there are a handful of problem areas around the city, including Madison Avenue at Roosevelt Street, Whitewater Avenue at McComb Street, Janesville Avenue at Jones Park, among others.
“The middle school floated to the top,” Selle said. “A consultant came out to look at the pickup and dropoff process there and noted that South Fourth Street is one of the more narrow streets in town.”
Anyone who’s dropped off or picked up a student from Fort Atkinson Middle School can attest to the chaos that used to ensue twice a day, every day. Pupils entering and exiting from the north-side doors naturally crossed Fourth Street, where cars often were lined up on both sides of the street. Meanwhile, buses were lined up along South High Street, another narrow roadway, preventing cars from effectively positioning themselves for dropping off or picking up students.
At that point, Abbott said, school district and city representatives got together with the Fort Atkinson Police Department and the bus company, Double Three Transportation, to come up with a plan to improve the situation. It was determined that the central bus transfer point should be moved from the Fort Atkinson Middle School to Fort Atkinson High School.
“It was a cooperative effort and a pretty cool endeavor,” Abbott said. “We weren’t surprised to confirm that traffic is horrible. We started looking at whether the transfer point could move to the high school, but we weren’t sure if there was room and capacity there or what it would mean for the middle school.”
Now that the change is complete, it’s proven to be a positive one.
“We went from having 13 buses lined up after school to four. And with that change, we were able to shift buses from High Street to Fourth Street, creating a no-drop-off zone in front of the main entrance, but essentially giving parents all of High Street to pull up, park, drop off and pick up.”
He continued: “The other piece of this is the crosswalk right out of the main entrance to the staff parking lot has always been very dangerous. Parents were triple-parking to drop off and pick up, and staff, as well as kids and families, were trying to cross in the middle of all that. It was survival of the fittest, so part of that communal effort with the city was about changing that and enforcing that change.”
After studying several options, the city chose to use a special high-performance, red-paint compound to clearly delineate two crosswalks on South Fourth Street, one directly in front of the school entrance, and the other at the corner of Fourth and South High streets.
“It’s been used in Madison and has stood the test of salt and plows,” Selle said. “We expect it to last at least five years.”
The intention is not only to clearly delineate crosswalks, but also to get drivers to slow down in that area. Selle said this approach is going to be used elsewhere in the city and by mid-October, citizens can expect to see red crosswalks in different locations around town.
Selle pointed to the cooperation and skill of assistant city engineer Rudy Bushcott and Department of Public Works employees Nick Rueth, Steve Kutz, Brandon Rogneby and Rick Allard as being instrumental in the execution of the project.
Josh Carter, director of buildings and grounds with the School District of Fort Atkinson, helped oversee the change in the bus-transfer point.
“I worked alongside the Director of Business Services & Safety Coordinator Jason Demerath, middle school principal Rob Abbott, high school principal Dan Halverson, city engineer Andy Selle, and other administration within our district to have structured meetings and bounce ideas off each other and make sure we really thought this through from beginning to end with communication and implementation before school starting,” Carter said. “The problem prior to this change was too much congestion on High Street and Fourth Street by the middle school with the amount of buses that were present, along with parent drop off and pick up. We had children running across the road and in between buses in front of traffic. That was not ideal. This change creates a much safer process for them and is much more efficient with how much more controlled space we have at the High School vs. on public roads.
“I oversaw the sealcoating and striping design to make the paint lines clear and pop for drivers to see with ease as they enter the high school,” Carter continued. “We also relabeled paint lines for drop-off and walkways at the middle school, and added signage and cones to help assist the visuals. The bus lanes are much more clearly marked now as well. This made the traffic flow much more efficient and keeps the movement of traffic and buses as safe as possible at the high school for our little ones and older students while they make their transfers.
“We did some practice runs with the buses prior to the real thing to make sure everything would fit correctly at the times needed,” Carter said. “I also worked alongside the city engineer, Andy Selle, to make sure we had clearly indicated slip-resistant red walkways crossing Fourth Street from our newly redone staff parking lot to the school as well, because kids use these crosswalks as well as staff. The sight lines of these high foot traffic areas are now much easier to see for drivers.”
Abbott said the plans have worked well.
“Generally speaking, people have been really compliant with the new traffic flow at the middle school, and I think a piece of it is that High Street is now pretty accessible, and we are dismissing more of our kids out onto High Street rather than Fourth Street, so it’s sort of spread out our dismissal some as well,” Abbott said.
As for the buses, the transfer point has been moved successfully to the high school, where there are three clearly defined lanes of traffic. The lane closest to the school is dedicated to buses, the middle lane is for through-traffic and the left lane, closest to the parking lot, is for dropoffs and picking up students.
“I think the bus transfer point is working great,” said Dan Halvorsen, Fort Atkinson High School principal. “It is operationally efficient and functioning as we hoped. I’ve heard many positive comments from students, parents and staff members. With this new layout, we are able to load and unload several hundred students within a 20-minute period twice a day.”
He continued: “As with any new, large-scale change, there are always challenges to overcome, but all concerns have been addressed quickly and efficiently. One major pleasantry was the opportunity for our high school students to get involved with helping younger students. We had a great recommendation from a parent to create a volunteer opportunity for our students to assist with getting the younger students to the correct transfer bus. The number is growing for volunteers and our current ones are doing an excellent job. It helps our students earn volunteer hours along with providing some of our students heading toward a career in child care or elementary education a chance for adult-supervised hands-on experiences.”
Carter agreed that the change has been a success.
“Parents and normal traffic are staying out of the bus and fire lanes at the high school. The little kids who are transferring buses are not crossing public roads and are safe up on walkways past the curb in front of the high school. The amount of buses have been greatly reduced at the middle school, allowing parents to drop off their kids with ease and with less congestion,” he said. “Safety comes first and I think we accomplished that here with this process change. We will continue to monitor and make tweaks if necessary, but so far it has been very streamlined and clearly communicated to everyone. Our administration does a wonderful job with that and you could see the result the first day we made the change.”
Abbott added, “This entire issue — including the bus transfer point and the crosswalk — it’s all part of the same initiative and it was all a joint effort between the City and the District to recognize and solve a problem that everybody knew was a challenge. So far, we think it’s working out great.”