Christine from Douglas County writes, “What’s driving you crazy? I am just curious why Douglas County did not make two turn lanes for south traffic into Rocky Heights Middle School to match the two entrance lanes. The traffic heading south on Monarch Boulevard has one lane to Rocky Heights Middle School. A majority of the cars do not turn into both entrance lanes for the middle school causing a huge back up. The traffic drop-off map for the school states that there are two entrance lanes, so when the traffic has the green arrow, shouldn’t the cars be turning into both entrance lanes? There is a sign that says no double turn so two cars cannot turn at the same time. However, one car can turn into either entrance lane making use of the two entrance lanes and avoiding the backup of traffic on Monarch Boulevard and Quebec. Wouldn’t this improve the morning traffic build up in the area? There are no sidewalks for kids to walk on and a very busy MacArthur Ranch street to try and cross. So most parents drive and it can take 20-30 minutes to drive under one mile. So, why didn't Douglas County make two turn lanes?”
Christine, there are many levels to the traffic issue at Rocky Heights Middle School. There is the new configuration by the Douglas County traffic department. There is a problem with the flow on school grounds in the drop-off lane. There is a problem with the parents not using both drop-off lanes. And there is a problem with how many kids are arriving at school in a car rather than by bus, on a bike or on foot.
The issues with drop-off and pickup at Rocky Heights started well before the recent change to the entrance to the school. Douglas County redesigned the entrance in the summer of 2018 after a traffic flow study was conducted by an independent traffic engineering consultant firm. The engineering study revealed northbound traffic volume required two northbound through lanes and two left turn lanes and the reduction of the southbound through lanes. Part of the change included a dedicated exit from the school parking lot for parents wanting to go south on Monarch back to Castle Pines.
To accommodate the change to the northbound entrance lanes, the county eliminated one of the southbound Monarch through lanes, leaving just one through lane and one dedicated right turn lane into the school. The county kept in place the no double right turn sign over the through lane on southbound Monarch. That is necessary to protect any bike riders in the bike lane that separates the dedicated turn lane and the southbound through lane. That’s why they have only one southbound right turn lane into the school.
Parents seem most frustrated during drop off and pickup by all the traffic that gets backed up from the front door of the school, winding all the way back to the street entrance and onto Monarch. That causes southbound Monarch traffic to often get backed up all the way to the McArthur Ranch/Quebec interchange a half mile away.
Parent Deborah Hunt said, “It makes me crazy in the morning!!! It’s so congested in that area in the mornings. Takes 10 minutes to move 10 feet!! There has to be a better way!”
Douglas County Principal Traffic Engineer Kathie Haire tells me one of the problems they are seeing is after parents make the right turn from southbound Monarch into the school entrance, they are staying in that right lane on school property.
“One of the problems is that most parents want to drop off in the right lane next to the curb and not in the left lane in the parking area,” Haire said. “You have two things happening here. You have the internal traffic flow that is directed by the school, and then you have the external flow in the right of way that we are trying to get the parents on the school grounds. We can only get them on the school grounds if there is ample room to receive them. Even if we could facilitate additional movements, there wouldn’t be any place for them to go.”
Here is a detailed map with instructions how the school wants parents to use both drop off lanes. The plan the school lays out is for parents to use two drop-off/pickup lanes. The right lane, zone No. 1, pulls up next to the curb in front of the school. The left lane, zone No. 2, pulls past the front doors and stops along the first row of parking in the lot. From there, the kids are directed by a security guard across traffic and into the school. Security will also direct pass through traffic through the rest of the parking lot to clear vehicles that have already made the drop off.
“Once you make the right turn from southbound Monarch, drivers can use either entrance lane onto school property” Haire said. “You can’t make a double right turn from southbound Monarch into the entrance to the school, but you can use either lane onto school grounds from the right turn lane.”
Chief Operations Officer Rich Cosgrove with the Douglas County School District said the traffic in and out of the school isn’t that bad, especially during pickup.
“The peak periods for traffic at our school sites are traditionally very short, 10 to 20 minutes,” he said. “All of the site improvements have drastically improved the afternoon traffic. The parking lot is now cleared within 10 minutes, which is a dramatic improvement from prior years. Our goal is to move traffic efficiently through the school site while not jeopardizing the students’ safety. Safety is always the top priority at the district.”
Parent Travis MacColl disagrees. He even suggested to school administrators to add signs at the entrance that would help educate parents how to get through more quickly,
“I’ve pretty much given up on using the close lane because the Highlands Ranch people refuse to fill both lanes,” he said. “Last year I asked if a sign could be put on the southbound from HR saying to please use both drop off lanes, I even offered to pay for it and install it. Never heard back. The best thing to do is just use the left turn lane and try not to let it bother you (easier said than done I know!)”
Since most parents prefer to use the right entrance lane, the traffic remains imbalanced and backed up onto Monarch.
“It is even worse for those headed north on Monarch in the right turn lane,” said parent Brian Miller. “That lane never gets into the parking lot because of the back up in that right lane against the sidewalk. I feel like the traffic flow have been worse this year.”
That is a sentiment shared by several bus drivers I spoke to. Their biggest concern is trying to get through the line of backed up traffic to get in and out of their designated drop-off/pickup area. Often the buses will sit across Monarch blocking all traffic as they wait for a gap to open up between the waiting parents’ vehicles.
Parent Lindsay Hamann agrees the buses are a problem.
“My favorite part is when one bus pulls out in the middle of traffic and blocks the traffic until all the buses have pulled out,” she said. “I am pretty certain that I would be ticketed if I did this.”
Parent Tiffany Hughes is one of many parents who finds it easier to drop off early.
“I found dropping off around 7 a.m. made it a whole lot more tolerable,” she said.
Hughes didn’t comment about how her student feels about getting to school a half hour before first bell.
During a follow-up conversation, Christine said, “During some mornings it becomes a real safety issue with cars blocking the intersection and swerving around each other to get to school before last bell.”
That is one of several safety concerns by Douglas County officials. One of their most pressing safety concerns is when parents get frustrated with waiting to get to the front door, so they let their student get out of their vehicle early while still waiting on Monarch in traffic. Then, the parent will make an illegal U-turn on Monarch to head back into Highlands Ranch.
Cosgrove responded to that concern this way: “The district’s top priority is keeping our students safe and ensuring best practices for student drop-off, pick-up, and safe walkways. If school staff were to see a student being unsafe during drop-off or pick-up, that staff member would communicate proper drop-off and pick-up procedures to that student or the student's parent.”
Wendy Holmes, communications and public affairs director for Douglas County, suggests parents let their kids ride the bus or walk to school.
“None of the schools were designed to handle the amount of automobile traffic that they now have,” she said. “These neighborhood schools were intended to be more walking arrival, not vehicular arrival.”
Haire said she thinks more can be done between the school and traffic operations.
“We’d like to continue working with the school and maybe do more education showing you can enter in the right lane but use both lanes and work with their security staff to maximize the efficiency of the pickup and drop off area and see if we can’t improve that,” she said.
Douglas County has long-range plans to widen Monarch to accommodate more traffic around the schools. Until then, the county says they will continue to coordinate with Rocky Heights Middle School to increase the efficiency of the internal and external operations.
“Douglas County has been a great partner on exploring solutions to improve traffic congestion that typically impacts the county’s street system,” Cosgrove said. “Douglas County was part of the design process for the recent parking lot improvements at Rocky Heights Middle School. The district will continue working with Douglas County traffic engineers on improving congestion around our school sites.”