Christopher High School junior Jerry Ponce keeps his head on a swivel, especially around 3 p.m. when the final bell rings and it’s time to amble home along Santa Teresa Boulevard.
“Just wait for the green light and make sure nobody’s coming this way,” the 17-year-old student said standing at the corner of Santa Teresa Boulevard and Sunrise Drive.
The intersection is a tricky one for after-school walkers for various reasons.
Crosswalk signals are not yet operating, so students sauntering south along Santa Teresa must be extra careful – or in some cases, just fast – to cross safely alongside dozens of cars, which City Transportation Engineer Don Dey said is caused by three successive, but non-synchronized, traffic signals.
There’s also no sidewalk for about a fifth of a mile once walkers pass the Sunrise Drive intersection, and students either trot along the dirt shoulder or jet across on their bikes, skateboards or sneakers – timing and dodging traffic in the process.
“Sometimes they don’t see us,” Ponce said about the cluster of cars. “Somebody could get hit if they aren’t really careful.”
Fortunately, city and school officials say help is on the way to calm traffic and improve walking conditions.
“There’s a number of projects in the works to address traffic congestion around the high school,” Dey said.
Those projects include syncing up traffic lights at Sunrise Drive, Day Road East and Day Road West, laying new sidewalk for students and widening southbound Santa Teresa Boulevard by an extra lane, Dey said.
And once the updates are complete, Dey said he’ll also be able to monitor traffic flow in real time from his desk at City Hall using a nifty computer network installed right into the signals.
“Essentially it would allow me to see what’s physically going on without being there in the field,” said Dey, whose hoping the fixes are complete by this summer.
“We want to be ready for next school year,” he said.
Dey said the traffic signal improvements have been a work in progress since the school opened in 2009. Now, the city is helping the Gilroy Unified School District finish the job because “they just never completed everything to be done to get them all (the traffic signals) fully functional.”
“We’re just trying to get their work finished and accepted by the city,” Dey said.
That’s music to CHS Principal John Perales’ ears, who says the morning and afternoon rushes can be “frustrating” at times.
“It’s pretty congested. It’s tough to get through there,” Perales said.
The school’s growing enrollment has also been a cause of the increased traffic, Perales said. The school now enrolls approximately 1,450 students – a big jump from last year’s roster of 1,000. When the school opened three years ago, that number was just 650, he said.
“As each grade level has come on board, more and more students have come on board,” he said.
Perales said the school should level off at about 1,600 students next year.
More students has meant more cars, and getting in and out of school in the early mornings and mid-afternoons respectively can be a headache at times, Perales said. Getting the lights synchronized – which will allow more cars to roll through each cycle – will be a big help, he said, especially if they allow more time for cars to turn into the school. Perales said the left-hand turn lane into the school at Day Road West can allow 10 to 15 cars per cycle, but that’s not enough.
“You’ll be sitting at a light, waiting for the green left-hand turn, but it only lasts for a short time,” Perales said. “If it could allow double or three times that amount, it would really make a difference.”
Gridlock at just a single intersection sometimes creates a chain reaction for the other intersections, creating a “parking lot” effect, he said.
“You do see traffic backed up light after light, and you can’t go anywhere,” he said.
Aside from fixing the independent traffic lights, Dey said the city also will work with developer K. Hovnanian Homes – which is building a tract just south of the campus – to widen southbound Santa Teresa Boulevard one additional lane by this summer.
“Once you hit the high school, then you will have two continuous southbound lanes as well as the right-hand turn lane,” Dey said.
Dey said the city also had acquired grant funding to build a sidewalk on the street’s east side for students walking southbound after school, though students will still have to cross over at Sunrise Drive to use the sidewalk, he said.
After school Wednesday, several students were seen braving oncoming traffic to cross Santa Teresa, including two students on bikes who pedaled out of the path of an oncoming minivan and one skateboarder who rolled south along the street’s double-yellow line, splitting traffic in both directions.
Sgt. Chad Gallacinao of the Gilroy Police Department said drivers and students need to exercise extra caution when around schools.
“We would encourage drivers and students be aware of their surroundings when near our local schools to ensure safety and prevent injury,” Gallacinao said.