Neighbors, school officials assess one-way experiment in South Baker

March 17, 2003 11:00 pm
The City Council voted in December to try a temporary One Way on Grace Street. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
The City Council voted in December to try a temporary One Way on Grace Street. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Scottie Butcher and Wes Dickison watch a caravan of cars unload their cargoes of South Baker Elementary students, most bundled inside bright-colored coats in deference to the still-biting chill of a mid-March morning.

Butcher and Dickison focus on the intersection of Fourth and Grace streets, at the northwest corner of the school.

This place where streets meet also is where opinions diverge about Baker City's effort to protect South Baker's 330 students, and to ease traffic congestion.

In December the City Council voted to change Grace Street, which runs along the north side of the school, from two-way travel to one-way (eastbound only) between Fourth and Second streets.

Councilors voted to try the plan at least until June 30. They will decide later this year whether to continue the one-way rule beyond the current school year.

School officials and some nearby residents, including Dickison, deem the one-way experiment a success.

But Butcher believes the change has exacerbated rather than reduced the danger to South Baker students.

South Baker Principal Pat Braswell hopes the City Council will choose to make permanent the six-month trial.

"We feel it's been very positive," Braswell said Monday. "Parents feel they have a better view of kids."

Maria Voboril, president of South Baker's Parents in Education group, agrees.

"It is so much better this way," she said Monday. "I think it's working out great."

Voboril told the council in December that allowing two-way traffic on Grace Street placed students in jeopardy when their parents dropped them off in the morning and picked them up in the afternoon.

Of particular concern, she said, were students whose parents approached the school driving westbound on Grace Street.

Those students had to cross the street, and thus walk in front of eastbound traffic, to reach the school.

The situation was particularly perilous during the height of the before- and after-school rushes, Voboril said. The combination of bumper-to-bumper traffic in both directions made it difficult for drivers to see students, some of whom are inches shorter than the hood on an average SUV.

Now, with all drivers required to proceed in the same direction, there is less confusion, Voboril said.

And students need not cross in front of traffic, she said.

But the problem, said Butcher, who like Dickison lives on Fourth Street near its intersection with Grace, is that some parents don't let their children out in a safe place. And students who walk to school and need to cross a street don't always use crosswalks, she said.

Butcher said she often drinks her morning coffee while sitting on her front porch, which affords her a direct view of the intersection of Fourth and Grace streets.

From that front-row vantage point, Butcher said she often sees students hop from a car as it idles in the middle of the intersection.

Some of those students have to cross in front of eastbound vehicles, she said.

At the same time, she said, some parents, rather than proceed east along Grace Street, either make a U-turn in the dead-end section of Fourth Street next to the South Baker playground, or turn west on Grace to avoid the one-way blocks.

The result, Butcher said, is a congested intersection that, despite the one-way signs, sometimes is clogged with cars moving in opposite directions.

"I'm waiting for a kid to get hit," Butcher said. "It's not any better as far as I'm concerned."

Voboril acknowledges that some parents either don't heed the one-way signs, or don't drop off their kids right next to a sidewalk.

She said that when she offloads her kids, she pulls to the curb directly in front of the school. Many parents pull into the no-parking area at the school's northwest corner. Either way, students can get to their classrooms without straying into traffic.

Like Butcher, Voboril said she has watched students get out in the middle of the intersection instead.

But she doesn't think irresponsible parents negate the benefits of the one-way zone.

"You can only educate the public so much," Voboril said. "I have been trying to work on those parents who just won't pull up to a curb."

Dickison, whose home stands right at the corner of Fourth and Grace streets, said the change to one-way traffic "is much safer for kids."

His wife, Shaun, an instructional assistant at South Baker, agrees.

"I think it's an improvement," she said. "Things just seem to flow more smoothly."

The Dickisons agree with Butcher, however, that not all parents leave their children in the safest place.

Wes Dickison said he, too, has seen drivers make U-turns; and a few times he's even watched someone drive the wrong way on Grace Street.

He suggests the school recruit volunteers, perhaps a group of senior citizens, to stroll the sidewalks around the school. These "guides" could remind parents where to drop of their kids, and remind students to use crosswalks, Dickison said.

"If we just get everybody to do the right thing, things would run more smoothly," Wes Dickison said.

South Baker already employs a pair of crossing guards, but only during the afternoon, which both the Dickisons and Butcher said tends to be an even more hectic period because many parents park while they wait for the final bell to ring.

Although both Braswell and Voboril said they've heard only positive comments from parents and others about the one-way experiment, they are seeking more opinions.

Braswell plans to survey parents later this spring.

"We feel we're on a trial basis and we really need solid evidence," he said.

Voboril supports the survey.

"I want to know, does the majority like this?" she said.