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Saint Louis County to block left turns at Lowell Elementary School

If a test goes smoothly, the county would install a more permanent concrete island.

Traffic on Rice Lake Road.
A motorist waits for a break in traffic on Rice Lake Road before turning right out of Lowell Elementary School on Thursday. A county plan would force everyone leaving Lowell to turn right. The goal is to reduce the number of cars clogging turn lanes on Rice Lake Road.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Some planned Saint Louis County roadwork could ease traffic worries at a local elementary school.

After consulting with Duluth school district leaders, county engineers plan to build a curved slab of concrete called a “porkchop” at the entrance to Lowell Elementary in 2023, a change that would only allow right hand turns from the school’s parking lot onto Rice Lake Road.

Part of a broader, $1.9 million set of repairs and improvements along the roadway scheduled for next summer, the concrete island would be designed to reduce congestion at the school during rush hours, especially morning ones, when the parking lot there overflows and creates lines of drivers along the road waiting to enter the lot itself. Only allowing comparatively easy right turns onto Rice Lake Road would, the thinking goes, get cars out of the parking lot more easily and make it more efficient.

“The turn lanes today are acting as temporary parking spots,” Vic Lund, the county’s traffic engineer, told School Board members at an Aug. 4 meeting.

Lowell.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

The cars waiting in those turn lanes can obscure sight lines and make it difficult for drivers to judge when it's safe to turn left from the school toward downtown Duluth. That can make them take longer pauses at the end of the driveway while they look for a gap in traffic, which, in turn, further backs up the parking lot, Lund explained.

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“The biggest issues are that we'd have more students that arrive late, after 7:45, just because the line to get them to the drop off zone is really long,” Eve Hessler, Lowell’s principal, said in an email. “On snowy days drop off can extend an extra 10 minutes into the start of the school day. In the afternoon, students have to wait patiently for longer periods of time simply because it takes time to move the sheer number of cars through the line and to get our younger students loaded and buckled up.”

While many parents welcome the effort to tamp down traffic speeds, some say the city could do more.

Enrollment at the school, which sports growing Spanish and Ojibwemowin immersion programs, has swelled from 376 students in 2017 to 573 in 2021. County data indicates that there’s been a total of two crashes at the school entrance in that same approximate time period, and Duluth Police Department staff counted a further four.

Rice Lake Road traffic.
A motorist leaving Lowell Elementary turns right onto Rice Lake Road.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The porkchop would cost the county between $20,000 and $50,000, Lund estimated, and staff there would solicit bids for its construction this winter. The school district wouldn’t be on the hook for any of that cost.

Before then, though, county and school district staff plan to test their plan for a few months this fall, installing temporary, flexible bollards – “ tubular delineators ” – that would block left-hand turns in the same way the porkchop would.

“This will greatly speed up the traffic flow and should resolve complaints as it will result (in) a safer transition to the roadway from our lot,” David Spooner, the school district’s facilities manager, wrote Thursday to the News Tribune. “This directive to turn right or north only out of the lot has been given to parents for years, but it's not enforceable and vehicles tend to try to go left anyway.”

Assuming the bollards don’t cause a larger problem, such as prompting scores of drivers to hook u-turns on Rice Lake road, the county would move ahead with the project next summer, Lund said.

The district already offers five busing "hubs" — parents can drop their students off at one, then a bus takes them the rest of the way. Those hubs also aim to ease school congestion, too, and Spooner said district administrators plan to continue that service this coming school year.

Lowell Elementary School
Lowell Elementary School in Duluth.
Clint Austin / 2019 file / Duluth News Tribune
READ MORE EDUCATION COVERAGE
Last year, Check and Connect boasted a 75% reduction in absenteeism and a 62% reduction in suspensions among enrolled students

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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