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By Andi Bourne

New school speed zone at Swan Valley School


September 13, 2018

Andi Bourne, Pathfinder

"School Speed Limit 55 mph – When Flashing" signs were installed on Highway 83 before school started. The reduced speed limit is in place from 7:30-8:30 a.m. and 2:30-3:30 p.m. on school days.

SWAN VALLEY – Anyone driving by the Swan Valley School can't help but notice the newly installed 55 mile-per-hour school zone and flashing lights during school day drop off and pick up times. The speed zone and signs will hopefully not only promote safer access to the school from Highway 83, it also taught the community a few lessons in persistence and working together towards a common goal.

In response to several complaints from bus drivers and parents picking up and dropping their children off at school, a citizens committee formed to address the safety issues. Bus drivers complained that traffic would disregard the school bus arm with lights flashing on Highway 83 and they would be passed without a thought.

"The traffic up here is just horrendous," said Marcia Tapp, former Swan Valey Community Council member who served as a private citizen on the citizens committee. "People travel up and down [Highway 83] all the time with no thought of the school being there. It was just a matter of time, in my opinion, before we had a horrific tragedy at the school site."

The committee started writing letters and contacting state and county representatives as well as working with the Montana Department of Transportation. Around 200 people signed a petition in support of the 55 mile per hour school zone which was forwarded to MDT.

At the November 2015 Swan Valley Council Council meeting, Missoula County Commissioner at the time Stacy Rye said that the commissioners supported the citizens' concern about the dangers to buses and drivers. The Council also received a letter from MDT indicated that the no passing zone would be extended farther to the north. Also, in response to a request by Missoula County officials, a speed study would be conducted to determine if a flashing light was necessary.

MDT released their findings from the Speed Limit Investigation Jan. 26, 2017. Their key findings included: good visibility on Montana Highway 83 in front of the school; the average annual daily traffic volume was 920 vehicles; there were four single vehicle crashes in the three-year crash history from June 1, 2013-May 31, 2016 – three involved deer; Montana Highway Patrol wrote two citations, one for speeding (78 mph) and one for careless driving and the 85th percentile speed from a half a mile north to a half a mile south of the school ranged from 68-73mph.

Based on the speed study, MDT concluded that traffic operation passed Swan Valley School matches the statutory 70 mph speed limit. They recommended that consideration of a reduced school zone speed limit would include additional attention provided by bouncing-ball flashing beacons. And the beacons, in conjunction with the reduced speed limit, be in operation during the morning and afternoon pick-up periods coinciding with the school bus schedules. Outside of these peak periods, the speed limit would remain 70 mph.

According to Montana Code Annotated 61-8-310, Missoula County had the authority to invoke a reduced school zone speed limit of 55 mph for the school. Based on the request from the Swan Valley Community Council and the analysis and recommendations from MDT, the commissioners unanimous approved Resolution No. 2002-Establishment of a school speed zone on Highway 83 at Swan Valley School on June 27, 2018. They requested that MDT proceed with installation of recommended signage.

"The Commission is always interested in safety in school zones so we were happy to support the community request for this flashing light to provide awareness for the Swan Valley School Zone," wrote Commissioner Jean Curtiss in an email. "Approaching the school from the south there is a hill and many do not realize the school zone is coming up. This light will let the traveling public know to be careful and slow down before and after school as buses and parents are entering the Highway 83. The Montana Department of Transportation was excellent to work with on this project."

The new signs were installed in August before the start of school. The approximate distance of the speed zone is a quarter of a mile from 500 feet south of the main entrance to 500 feet north of the intersection with Seaman Lane. The speed zone is in effect 7:30-8:30 a.m. and 2:30-3:30 p.m. on school days.

For Tapp, if there is a situation that the community wants, they need to go after it and not let road blocks stand in the way

"The community can make changes. I think that it is a lesson that people do control our governmental life if people insist on being in control. I think our flashing lights are just a small example of that and maybe they will save people's lives."

"The people of the Swan Valley that collected signatures on the petition, met with the highway officials and put together the plan to take on this project should be "sincerely thanked"---it was a true community effort," wrote committee member and current Chair of the Swan Valley Community Council Ken Donovan on the Swan Valley Facebook page. "James Freyholz, Swan Valley resident and present Montana Highway Department official, deserves a special thanks for his professional advise and support while guiding us through the process."


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