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Traffic Nightmares During Schools' Arrival, Dismissal

FCPS, Fairfax County addressing overcrowded car lines at schools

Traffic Nightmares During Schools' Arrival, Dismissal

The congestion outside Fairfax County schools has officials looking for federal help to shorten the lines.

School Superintendent Jack Dale and County Executive Anthony Griffin want kids in school, they just take different approaches on how they should get there.

Both agree the long lines outside Fairfax schools have to shorten. While Griffin eyes infrastructure and design plans to solve the problem, Dale thinks it's first about changing minds.

"We need help to convince parents and kids to ride the bus or walk or ride a bike to school," said Dean Tisdadt, FCPS chief operating officer and head of facilities and transportation services.

Tisdadt's spoke at the Superintendent Parent Advisory Council meeting Tuesday about the need to solve the problem in the Kiss and Ride lines before and after school. "We know some of the bus rides are too long. And we had too many logistical problems with bus runs this year."

Traffic at Hayfield Elementary School got so bad, for example, the school closes the car line at 8:02 a.m. after which parents must park and walk their children into school. At Bull Run Elementary School, the car line climbs to 200 some mornings.

Tisdadt also acknowledged some parents have legitimate reasons for driving their kids, including crowded conditions and a ban against bringing musical instruments on a bus.

But that does not account for all the people at Kiss and Ride, he argues.

Griffin wrote to Dale in March to discuss how the school system and the county can improve their partnership, particularly around applying for federal funds from the Safe Route to Schools (SRTS) program.

The letter outlined how the county and schools worked on encouraging SRTS grant proposals and other efforts to get more kids on the bus or path. Griffin asked Dale to "direct FCPS 'from the top down' to make the SRTS Program a FCPS priority."

SRTS programs enable community leaders, schools and parents to improve safety and encourage more children, including children with disabilities, to safely walk and bicycle to school.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is responsible for administering the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) Program in Virginia. "The program is designed to facilitate the development of partnerships among schools and local governments for the planning and implementation of successful SRTS initiatives," according to the SRTS website.

Fairfax County — the state's largest school district — has netted about $10,000 of the $14 million available to schools through SRTS in Virginia. Areas like Alexandria and Virginia Beach have received around $1 million each in grant money in the past.

Fairfax schools with a history of involvement with SRTS programs include Louise Archer, Marshall Road, Cunningham Park, Vienna, Wolftrap, Flint Hill and Lynbrook elementary schools. Terra Centre Elementary School put in an infrastructure application March 25 and Spring Hill Elementary School is involved with the transportation department on a possible sidewalk infrastructure project.

Griffin's letter also acknowledged the Board of Supervisors' willingness to direct Department of Transportation to help with "transportation analysis, grant preparation, walkway project design, land acquisition, and construction."

But in an April 7 letter to Griffin, Dale said emphasis should be made on changing parents' attitudes about driving their children to school so sidewalks and other construction projects would not go to waste.

"Parental and student behaviors remain an obstacle to this goal," Dale said.

Dale's letter included results from a 2008 online parent survey on Kiss and Ride to show the unwillingness among parents to have their children ride the bus or walk to school:

  • 60 percent of designated walkers and 39 percent of designated bus riders were driven to school.
  • Of the designated walkers, almost 30 percent said they will continue to use Kiss and Ride even if safety improvements are made.
  • Some reasons listed for why Kiss and Ride will continue: heavy backpacks, convenience, inclement weather and letting the kids sleep later.

When asked what would be required to consider getting their kids back on the bus, 61 percent did not choose one of the available responses, leading the school system to conclude there is nothing the schools could do to convince parents not to use Kiss and Ride.

"We can't even get the current [designated] walkers out of cars," Tistadt said.  "We don't want to build trails to nowhere."

Tistadt and Dale are hoping to build a community dialogue about getting parents and kids to change.

"We know we won't eliminate the Kiss and Ride lines but we have to reduce them," Tistadt said. "And it has to happen community by community."

Bruce Wright, chairman of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling and a strong SRTS proponent, said he is glad both the county and FCPS seem to be taking a serious look at SRTS as a solution to the car line problem.

Wright hopes that more schools will get involved and existing programs will expand and improve, as many are not active.

"We've made some progress in developing programs but there is so much more that could be done, " Wright said.

As Griffin and Dale work out whether building sidewalks or raising awareness is the solution, Wright thinks both are necessary and is especially encouraged by Dale's emphasis on changing attitudes.

"We are paying for the bus seats that are sitting empty," Wright said.

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