Issue not settled

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Correspondent

Carbondale officials, angered and dismayed over potential hazards to school kids walking across Highway 133, on Tuesday convinced the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to reinstall “school zones” signs and flashing beacons near the intersections of Highway 133 and two major cross streets near schools, at least for now.

But the state agency will take another look at the issue come spring, and may take them down again unless it feels the signs and beacons are warranted by potential for accidents involving children crossing the highway, said Town Manager Jay Harrington.

The signs and flashing lights cautioned motorists to slow down from 40 miles per hour, the speed limit just north of the zone, to 25 MPH along the stretch of highway from just south of Hendrick Drive to the intersection at Snowmass Drive, an area close to several schools and regularly crossed by numerous school-aged children.

The issue arose last week, when the signs and flashers suddenly disappeared, after having been up for only a matter of weeks, when CDOT officials concluded that the new traffic signal at Snowmass Drive and Highway 133 would slow traffic sufficiently to ensure safety for pedestrians, according to Harrington.

The disappearance of the signs prompted Mayor Stacey Bernot to fire off an e-mail to CDOT’s regional transportation director, David Eller, accusing the agency of “either a lack of understanding of the importance” of such signs on a busy highway, or “an utter disregard for the safety of my community’s future — our children. Either way I find this recent development unacceptable.”

Later in the message, Bernot declared, “A 40 MPH area with distracted drivers through a heavily used and school dense stretch of highway is a recipe for disaster.”

The removal of the signs also led to a quickly-arranged meeting on Tuesday morning between CDOT representatives, Harrington, town police officers and town Public Works Director Larry Ballenger.

That meeting was held at 7:45 a.m. as area school children could be seen crossing the highway on their way to the two nearby public schools — Carbondale Middle School and Crystal River Elementary School, both of which are located along Snowmass Drive.

Harrington also sent an e-mail, to CDOT Traffic Operations Engineer Richard Sarchet, outlining the ways in which Harrington felt the two zones meet the agency’s requirements for using such signs to control speed:

• The zone between Hendrick and Snowmass drives serves four existing schools and one existing preschool, and ultimately will serve another school soon to be built, Ross Montessori Charter School.

• A parallel bicycle and pedestrian trail is, in some spots, within three or four feet of the highway lanes, most of it lacking curb and gutter separation, across which speeding cars could easily slip and swerve.

• The Carbondale Police Department wants the zones re-established, feeling that a 40 miles-per-hour speed through this stretch of the highway is unsafe given the numbers of children who use the crosswalks and trail.

• The town was not consulted, nor did it consent to removal of the signs and discontinuation of the lower-speed zones.

In an e-mail sent to Bernot, Harrington and CDOT officials following the roadside meeting and another gathering at Town Hall, Zane Znamenacek, CDOT’s Region 3 Traffic Program Manager, apologized for  his agency’s failure to consult with the town prior to removing the signs and beacons, and promised to restore the signs and the reduced-speed zones by Thursday, and pledged his agency to consider “moving beyond the current school zones to enhance school children safety even further.”

Looking toward the future, Znamenacek indicated that CDOT and the school district will work together on a “school zone study” to determine what, if any, other action is warranted for those stretches of Highway 133.

“All recommendations and results will be discussed with school and town authorities,” he promised.