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Slow down by schools? Buffalo wants to make it more than just an idea

"School Zone 15 M.P.H." warns the neon green sign with black letters and pedestrian figures outside North Park Community School on Parkside Avenue.

But the passing cars, SUVs and pickup trucks – and even some school buses – seem to be traveling considerably faster than 15 mph. Yet they can't get ticketed unless they are driving faster than the city's posted speed limit, typically 30 mph.

That's because the school zone signs posted near schools in Buffalo – unlike those in many suburbs – are advisory only. They merely warn motorists of nearby schools and are not enforceable by police, said Common Council Member Joel P. Feroleto, whose Delaware District contains the North Park school.

City lawmakers are trying to change that.

They want to create an enforceable local law to reduce the speed limit to 15 mph for a quarter mile around each of the roughly 100 public, charter, private and parochial schools in Buffalo. The proposal will be discussed in Tuesday's Legislation Committee meeting.

Such a change would mirror laws in some suburbs, where one Buffalo lawmaker recalled getting a ticket for speeding in a school zone.

The Buffalo ordinance must follow guidelines from state vehicle and traffic law, which provide options for enforcement ranging from signs with flashing beacons when the lower speed limit is in effect to signs that merely alert drivers that the speed limits are enforced during arrival and dismissal times or all day long when schools are open, said Michael J. Finn, acting commissioner of the city's Department of Public Works, Parks and Streets.

The Council plans to hold at least four public meetings during evening hours to get community input on how to enforce the school zone speed limits.

The start of the next school year would be the earliest that enforceable speed limits would be fully implemented, Finn said, adding that the Public Works Department has been working with Buffalo Public Schools to obtain data – including how many kids walk to school and how many are bused – that will help in developing a plan.

The goal is to "kind of get a sense of the risk data for the various schools, so we're targeting this appropriately," Finn said. The data will be part of the plan presented during the community meetings.

Rory Allen lives a few blocks from Frederick Law Olmsted School 64 on Amherst Street, where his first-grade triplets and 4-year-old attend school. When the weather is nice, he and other parents walk their kids to school, Allen said. But the design of a "dangerous" corner near the school makes it an accident waiting to happen because of speeding drivers approaching kids standing on the curb, Allen said.

"A lot of people walk to that particular school. Any given morning you might have 100 kids crossing the street. They walk up to the edge of the sidewalk, and people are going 30 mph and sometimes more," Allen estimated. "At this particular intersection, we're letting kids step up to the curb, and we let them stand there."

There has been a rise in reckless driving during morning and afternoon drive times, said Will Keresztes, chief of intergovernmental affairs, planning and community engagement for the Buffalo Public Schools.

"We definitely have what I would consider to be a crisis at hand," Keresztes said during a Council meeting last month.

The school district has had four "close calls" that could have been tragedies this school year at Bennett Park Montessori School 32, Olmsted 64, Southside Elementary School and Dr. George E. Blackman School of Excellence on Main Street, where a motorist drove through a red light at high speed, Keresztes said. The other incidents included missing crossing guards, which left families on their own trying to get their kids safely across the street.

"Those tragedies were only avoided with an awful lot of luck and God's presence, really, on behalf of children and parents that could have been victims of some terrible catastrophes," Keresztes said.

The Buffalo Police Department's Traffic Unit has assigned patrol cars at five public schools where police historically have received the most complaints about speeding and motorists not stopping at stop signs, Schools Resource Chief Aaron V. Young said during a recent Council committee meeting. They are School 32 on Clinton Street, School 54 at Main and Leroy Avenue, Olmsted 64, Southside Elementary and North Park and its Middle Academy, which are in the same building. Police also "periodically monitor" other schools, he said.

The Traffic Unit supervisor monitors the summons issued at the five locations "just so we know how bad the problem is," Young said, adding that patrols saw a "noticeable decrease in the amount of motorists who ran" a stop sign at the North Park schools after the patrols were posted there.

"That is a success story I think as far as the safety of the school," Young said, adding that district police chiefs have been directed to ask residents during their community meetings what they're seeing in the school zones they live near "just so we can also address those with more patrols from the Traffic Unit."

The growth of community schools could increase the hazard because it would mean more kids walking to school rather than being bused, parents and officials say. In the past three years, the district has opened 21 community schools where the goal is to have 50 percent of the students live within 7/10 of a mile from the school, Feroleto and BPS officials said. That means they don't qualify for busing.

The problems also "may be a consequence of a rising Buffalo," Keresztes said, pointing to growing commuter traffic on some arteries at the same time enrollment is growing at some schools. "So it's something that's long overdue for looking at."

But the problem is not limited to traditional public schools, said Lovejoy Council Member Richard A. Fontana, whose son attends South Buffalo Charter School.

"Right in front of the charter school, there's a sign that states 15 miles per hour. Even the buses that go to that school are going 30, 35 miles per hour past that sign all day long, every day," he estimated. "Nobody's going 15 miles per hour, not even the buses."

Buffalo is behind the curve when it comes to enforceable school speed zones to avoid accidents, city lawmakers said.

Fontana recalled getting a ticket for going 33 mph in Depew.

"I asked the officer what possibly could I have gotten a ticket for?" Fontana recounted. "He goes 'You're speeding in a school zone.' I thought I was going slow enough. I wasn't."

Depew Middle and High schools on Transit Road have school zone speed limits that are enforced by Depew police, said Capt. Ken Kaczmarek.

The signs, which have flashing lights, are a result of a pedestrian-vehicle accident about 10 years ago, said David Hess, director of facilities for the Depew Union Free School District.  The speed limits are in effect generally on school days from 7 to 9 a.m. and 2 to 4 p.m.

During nonschool hours the speed limit is 30 mph at the schools, but during any time of the day some people are driving 40 mph, creating a "very big risk," which is why enforcement is important, he said.

"When I drive through there I do notice people slowing down, which tells me they're aware we're out there, and they slow down," Kaczmarek said.

The Amherst Police Department enforces speed limits at the Amherst, Sweet Home and Williamsville schools in the town, said Capt. Kevin Brown, adding that school safety "is something we pay close attention to throughout the town," though enforcement mechanisms can vary from school to school. He pointed to Sweet Home as an example.

"In front of Sweet Home Middle School, it has a flashing beacon; but in front of Sweet Home High School, there is no beacon, but there are signs," he said, adding that, for the most part, flashing beacons are used for arrival and dismissal times.

Also a concern among Buffalo parents and lawmakers is a lack of consistency in crosswalks, crossing guards and signs.

"Certain schools have patrols, and other schools don't. Some schools have signs; other schools don't. Some schools have crossing guards, and of course others don't," said Masten Council Member Ulysees O. Wingo during a recent meeting of the Education Committee he chairs. "In my district in particular ... there is a crossing guard, but there's no stop sign or any school sign around School 61.

"I'd like to see every school in the City of Buffalo, whether it be public school, parochial school, private school, doesn't matter what kind of school it is. I'd like for there to be clear school zone signs."

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