Every weekday morning from August to May, Christine Dupell says, her Northtree neighborhood in suburban Boynton Beach is invaded.
Parents pull onto the quiet streets, stopping on lawns and dropping off teenagers who then walk several blocks east across Jog Road to Park Vista High School.
“People used to have to block off their driveway because drivers would flip (U-turns) in them,” Dupell said.
For eight years — since the 3,100-student high school opened off Jog — Northtree residents have complained to Palm Beach County traffic, sheriff’s office and school district officials about the effects of traffic jams outside the school.
Their latest complaints have caught the ear of County Commissioner Shelly Vana, who wants to have a public meeting to discuss the traffic nightmare. “Hopefully we can fix it,” said Vana, who had planned the meeting for today but last week postponed it for personal reasons. “That is not an optimal way to live.”
Park Vista parents aren’t particularly happy with the situation either. They complain that if they waited through the traffic jams on Jog Road, they would never get their other children to their schools or get to work on time.
“There’s no other way,” said Maya Rakem as she dropped off her son in Northtree in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday morning. “Otherwise we’d be dropping them off on (Jog Road).”
To be sure, traffic back-ups at county high schools — particularly in the mornings — are nothing new. Nor are they limited to Park Vista. A line of cars stretching south along Congress Avenue for a good quarter-mile is typical for parents waiting to drop off their kids at Suncoast High School in Riviera Beach, for example.
But Dupell and her neighbors say the untenable traffic problems surrounding Park Vista, particularly driving south on Jog Road, have parents not just cutting through her neighborhood but parking along streets.
Out of options for a fix
Sheriff’s deputies have begun handing out tickets, but dozens of cars can still be seen dropping off students in the neighborhood. What’s more, school district and county transportation officials say they’re out of options to relieve Park Vista’s traffic jams.
“I really don’t know what else we can do,” says Angela Usher, the school district’s point person with the county on traffic patterns around district schools.
That’s certainly not what Northtree residents like Dupell want to hear. But it’s in line with their thinking, that the way the school district and county “designed the school was very poorly done.”
While no one really disputes that opinion, officials do paint a picture of good planning that ended up between a rock and a hard place.
Usher said when the school district and county, in 1994, purchased the 100-acre property where a regional park and Park Vista now sit, the plan was to build a much smaller school.
But that smaller school — now Boynton Beach High — ended up being built farther east to first satisfy city residents who wanted their own new school.
In the ensuing years, the need for a West Boynton school only got worse as schools like Santaluces High became overcrowded. By the time the new high school was being planned in 2002, a much bigger school was needed.
Usher said then-County Traffic Engineer Charlie Walker suggested building two left-turn lanes on Jog Road for the larger school, but didn’t impose it as a requirement because there was not enough right of way to do so.
Something had to give. And officials decided the need for a new high school outweighed everything else.
Bigger school needed
According to district records, Santaluces High alone was about 1,000 students over its capacity before Park Vista opened. The following year, Park Vista opened with more than 2,000 students from several surrounding high schools.
Usher says that the county and school district could have left more right of way when Jog Road was initially widened in the late 1990s. The district learned from its experience with Park Vista when planning for future high schools like Palm Beach Central High and Seminole Ridge High, she said.
That doesn’t help the Northtree-Park Vista dilemma, of course. Vana’s office receives steady complaints about Park Vista parents who turn west on Northtree Boulevard from Jog Road to avoid waiting in long traffic lines to turn east toward the high school.
Barbara Jackson, a 22-year Northtree resident, said every morning she sees cars pulling down her road on Lake Loran Way, making U-turns and then dropping off kids to walk across Jog to the high school before the parents speed back out of the neighborhood.
‘A safety issue’
The Park Vista traffic makes it hard for residents to get out of the neighborhood in the morning, she said. Also, parents often drop off their children in the dark to walk down streets and cross busy Jog Road.
“It’s a safety issue,” Jackson said. “Somebody is going to get hurt some day.”
Paula Charlock, owner of the Northtree Learning Center preschool near the intersection of Northtree and Jog, said she frequently has parents in the afternoon waiting in her parking lot for their children to walk west across Jog Road.
She had a scare a few weeks ago, she claims, when one of her pre-schoolers was almost hit by a parent speeding through her parking lot to drop off a student.
Dan Weisberg, the county’s traffic engineer, said the crux of the problem is that single left-hand turn lane off southbound Jog Road onto eastbound Northtree.
The morning surge of southbound cars waiting to turn left often backs up nearly a mile north to Hypoluxo Road. The latest available traffic counts from the county for that intersection measured 375 southbound left turns from 6:45 a.m. to 7:45 a.m. when Park Vista students are arriving — and that was in 2010.
“We normally start thinking about needing another turn lane at around 200,” Weisberg said.
Weisberg said crafty — and often desperate — parents are one step ahead of mitigation efforts. For instance, parents started dropping children off on the west side of Jog Road, doing a U-turn on Jog and heading north rather than wait in the long left-turn line. To curb this, the county posted signs that prohibited discharging passengers on Jog.
Then, parents starting turning west onto Northtree, making a U-turn and then heading east through the traffic light at the Jog Road intersection to the high school. So, the county put up a sign prohibiting going straight east on Northtree Boulevard at Jog Road, forcing motorists to either turn north or south at the light.
Charlock, the preschool owner, said that solution actually made the situation worse. Parents then started dropping their children off on Northtree Boulevard and at her preschool, she said. Weisberg adds that the signs sent parents drive onto the neighborhood’s smaller residential streets.
Weisberg and Usher, the district’s Facilities Planning and Coordination Manager, both said they are not working on any additional modifications to the traffic pattern to alleviate the Northtree problem.
“We could put up more ‘Do not discharge’ signs,” Weisberg said, “but the they’ll just go deeper into the neighborhood.
“I’m not sure what else we can do,” he said.
For its part, Sheriff’s Office spokesman Eric Davis said the agency is trying increased traffic enforcement in the area.
But on one recent morning, as a deputy ticketed motorists trying to drop off passengers on Northtree Boulevard, at least one motorist pulled up to the stop sign on Northtree and dropped off students.
And on another morning last week, when no deputy was present, a steady stream of parents flipped U-turns on Northtree right in front of a “No U-turn” sign and then pulled onto the shoulder to drop off their children.
“I would like to avoid having to do this,” said Rakem, the Park Vista parent dropping off her son last week, “but there is no other way.”