Bus loop decision goes around in circles

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LAPS: Board sends the issue back to the drawing board

By Jennifer Garcia

The Los Alamos High School bus loop issue will go back to the drawing board.

Tuesday night, board members voted unanimously to reopen an investigation on the loop after hearing public comments and being unable to reach a unanimous decision.

Before the meeting two options were on the table. One would have a bus loop running in front of the Instructional Media Center, which would have cut into the green space that’s currently there. The second option was a redesign of the Duane Smith parking lot.

In December, the board voted 4-1 to approve the bus loop option that would position it in front of the IMC, which carries a price tag of $155,000. At that time, Board Vice President Kevin Honnell voted against it.

However, during the Feb. 14 meeting, Los Alamos resident Mary Sandoval expressed her concern for the green space that would be lost in going with that option. She asked board members to reconsider the proposed loop. Honnell agreed to place the item on a future agenda for discussion, which resulted in Tuesday night’s special meeting.

At the December meeting, LAPS Transportation Supervisor Keith Rosenbaum showed a seven-minute video that illustrated how dangerous the Duane Smith lot is during drop-off and pick-up times, before and after school. The same video was played again Tuesday night and showed near misses that students have with vehicles as they try to cross the parking lot.

Architectural renderings of both the bus loop and the Smith lot redesign were shown to the audience. LAPS Superintendent Gene Schmidt discussed the pros and cons of each option and gave a brief history of the discussion.

Four LAHS students attended the meeting and presented the board with a petition on which they had collected 141 student signatures. The students that signed it asked board members to find an alternative solution that would leave the green space intact in front of the high school.

Student Miranda Barraza took the opportunity to ask questions about the bus loop and voiced her concern over the fact that the loop would only hold six buses and asked about traffic “pile-up.”

Rosenbaum assured her that there would be no pile-up because the buses would be staggered.

Travis Ritchins, also a student, expressed concerns about the bus loop and wondered how the buses would be able to exit the bus loop and make a left onto Diamond because of their size.

“I can barely do that in my Suburban,” Ritchins said.

LAHS student Teresa Sandoval suggested to board members that they gauge students’ opinions about the options.

“Students are the ones at the school,” she said. “I talked to a lot of students and four (compared to 500) said they would be in favor of the Smith option.”

Western Area residents seemed to have the strongest opinions about the bus loops. Joyce Cady described the long wait she has each morning, waiting to turn onto Sandia from Diamond, after returning from the Larry R. Walkup Aquatic Center. She said there’s already an issue with traffic becoming backed up, as vehicles try to turn into the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos parking lot.

Rosenbaum assured her that the buses exiting Diamond would not be an issue because they would head to Los Alamos Middle School, then on to their elementary routes after dropping high school students off.

Los Alamos Magistrate Judge Pat Casados had very strong opinions about both options. She disagreed with the Smith lot option because she said as it stands there are traffic issues in the Denver Steels neighborhood.  She said parents dropping students off are always in a hurry and try to drop students off as quickly as possible so they don’t end up behind a bus on Orange Street. As a result, they are “rude and inconsiderate.” Her solution to the issue was to “make them (students) ride the bus.”

Sandoval spoke in favor of the green space once again, saying that the bus loop would do little to create more safety and that green space was “invaluable.” She called the new high school building “stark and industrial in appearance.”

A few of those in attendance claimed to have no prior knowledge of the options being presented, despite previous reports appearing in the Los Alamos Monitor. Honnell apologized for those who may have felt “hoodwinked,” saying that the board does its best to make the meeting agendas available to the public and that he realizes residents are busy and don’t always pay attention to the issues coming to the board.

“It’s only when something contentious happens and seems like it’s going to happen, that people become interested,” he said.

Despite the inability to choose between the bus loop and the Smith lot option Tuesday night, board members all agreed on one thing: students’ safety is the most important issue.

“I voted for it (the bus loop). My concerns were safety. I like trees, I like grass,” board member Dawn Venhaus said. “I’m very sympathetic to that … Safety is my main concern. Something needs to be done before an accident happens.”

Board member Judith Bjarke-McKenzie agreed with Venhaus. “My concern is the safety of students,” she said.

Honnell, who represents the Western Area, also said that safety is the number one concern, but also pointed out that no traffic study had been done in regard to the bus loop. “We’re supposed to be a data-driven board … what we’re really trading off is asphalt vs. green space. It doesn’t seem like a preferred solution. We can do better,” he said.

McKinley said that neither option works for her. “It makes me feel like we should go back to the drawing board. We’ve never had an accident. We’ve never had gun violence, but that doesn’t mean we will allow guns at school,” she said. “Neither one is a great solution. I don’t have a good solution. I still think this (the bus loop) is the best of all evils.”

Schmidt agreed with McKinley, saying that if the plan is so disagreeable, then “we have to go back and revisit all options.”

As a result of the board’s decision, the architect will be called back to revisit the options, as well engage the county traffic engineer. A special board meeting will take place in the future to discuss the options. Sanjay Engineer, the architect from the firm FBP, will meet with a group of students and Western Area residents on March 16, to help develop a rubric, or a means of communicating expectations for the project.