In Norwich, morning coffee and school buses don't mix well

Norwich — School, city and state traffic officials are trying to resolve a problem school officials foresaw some seven years ago, when the city’s first Starbucks Coffee shop was proposed on busy Route 82: the morning demand for coffee coincides with the time when buses and parents drop off children.

The Starbucks, approved in 2012, is located at the front of the entrance road to the Thomas Mahan School, and the two share the lane at the red light at the Route 82 intersection. And, because it’s a side street, the light is green for only 10 seconds, while traffic on Route 82 has a green light for 50 seconds per minute.

Mahan School Principal Donna Funk said the combination of traffic and the quick light routinely causes backups in the school driveway for 20 to 40 minutes, with buses and parents’ vehicles competing with exiting Starbucks customers for those precious few seconds. At times, if a vehicle turning out of the Starbucks’ lane needs to make a wide turn, incoming traffic also must stop and wait.

One parent dropping off her child at 8 a.m. on a recent morning didn’t get out of the Mahan driveway until 8:45 a.m., Funk said. Dismissal time can be a problem, too. On Tuesday, all eight buses were loaded for dismissal by 2:55 p.m., and the last bus didn’t exit the driveway until 3:30 p.m.

Superintendent Abby Dolliver said the Mahan delays have a domino effect, because Mahan is the earliest of seven city elementary schools in the staggered time schedule, so buses need to start their next run upon leaving Mahan.

Dolliver recently invited police and City Engineer Patrick McLaughlin to observe the problem at Mahan and the potential safety hazards, with cars accelerating through yellow lights to beat the signal change. City officials in turn contacted the state Department of Transportation, and those efforts already have brought about some changes.

State DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said Thursday that changing the green light pattern significantly would disrupt light patterns at about 15 other lights on the busy Route 82 commercial strip, including those at the Interstate 395 Exit 11 ramp.

But starting Thursday night into Friday morning, the green light at the Mahan School entrance road will be six seconds longer, a total of 22 seconds including yellow light time, Nursick said. He called it a test to see if the added green time might affect traffic on the main road. The added time will run from 6 p.m. to noon, the time phase that includes school start time. The noon to 6 p.m. time phase will remain at 10 seconds green time, Nursick said. No changes are planned to other side street lights in the area, he said.

“We’re hopeful stealing the six seconds will not cause any traffic inefficiencies on Route 82,” Nursick said.

Dolliver welcomed the quick response from DOT and the recognition that the problem is real.

“It’s great to work with the state and the city together,” Dolliver said Thursday. “It takes all of us to do the right thing.”

City officials will meet Friday to discuss the situation and possible long-term solutions further.

City Engineer McLaughlin is working on a more long-term solution. Several years ago, DOT finished a major reconfiguration of the Route 82-Interstate 395 interchange. The project included shifting a residential side street, Maplewood Court, to align with a traffic light to help residents enter the busy commercial strip. McLaughlin said two former house lots purchased by DOT for that project also abut the Mahan School property.

If the state would turn over the two parcels to the city, a separate entrance road could be created for Mahan School buses and traffic, using the traffic light at the end of Maplewood Court.

Nursick said DOT typically turns over local streets or alterations to local streets back to cities and towns upon completion of the state project. That hasn’t been done yet in the Maplewood Court project but should be done soon.

If any state land remains that is needed to create a new entrance for Mahan School, state DOT officials will work with the city on the project.

“The DOT would be more than happy to work with the city if they need an access point from state land to do so,” Nursick said.

Dolliver had warned of potential traffic conflicts between the then-proposed Starbucks in 2012 and Mahan School. In a letter dated Sept. 28, 2012, to the Commission on the City Plan, Dolliver said she would not be opposed to adding a Starbucks, or any other economic development project to Route 82, but she objected to the location at the Mahan School entrance, which she noted was not a public street.

“I would assume that a coffee shop drive-through would be exceptionally busy just at the start of our school day,” Dolliver wrote. “It would be dangerous and impossible to handle all of this traffic at that traffic signal and in that driveway. ... I am concerned with our need to maintain a tight bus schedule. We have tiered scheduling, and late buses would impact others in addition to Mahan School students.”

c.bessette@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version clarifies when the extended green light time begins.

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