Mehlville eyes splitting cost of traffic signal on Telegraph

Critics of proposal say district shouldn’t have to pay for light.

By EVAN YOUNG

For years, the high traffic volume near Telegraph Road’s signal-less intersection with Oakville Middle and Wohlwend Elementary schools has forced bus drivers and parents to wait for a break before turning in and out of the shared campus before and after school.

For years, pupils that must cross the five-lane highway have had to walk nearly a mile in the street north to Baumgartner Road or south to Christopher Drive for a proper crosswalk.

And for years, the question of who should foot the bill for a new traffic signal on the busy stretch of roadway has put the Missouri Department of Transportation at odds with some residents in the Mehlville School District.

The Board of Education is scheduled this week to consider a proposal that would split the cost of installing a signal at Oakville Middle-Wohlwend Elementary between the district and MoDOT. The board meets at 7 p.m. today — March 25 — at the district’s Administration Building, 3120 Lemay Ferry Road.

MoDOT’s engineering policy requires school districts to fund half the construction cost of a permanent school signal and to pay all the design, right-of-way and utilities costs associated with the project.

With the proposal on the table, though, MoDOT would install the signal and pay for an engineering study if the school district contributes $100,000 to the total project cost, Superintendent Terry Noble said.

The money would come out of the district’s maintenance capital fund, and is less than the $350,000 state officials previously have estimated for the district’s share, Noble said.

But the proposal’s critics believe Mehlville shouldn’t have to spend its education dollars on the project when MoDOT already receives public funding from fuel and motor vehicle sales taxes.

“Honestly, as a taxpayer in the Mehlville School District, I am just outraged at the fact that the Missouri Department of Transportation is even talking to our school administrators, asking us for money,” said Donna Seidel, a district parent and member of the group Turn on the Signal, which is fighting to get a fully functional signal with pedestrian pushbuttons and crosswalks installed at no cost to Mehlville.

The group successfully persuaded the department after several years to switch the light at Point Elementary School — also on Telegraph Road — from only flashing yellow to a fully functional signal last May.

“We’ve already paid tax dollars to the state,” Seidel told the Call. “They shouldn’t be taking school tax dollars for this project. It’s not a school project. It’s a state project. They have their own funds.”

Both Oakville Middle and Wohlwend Elementary were built in the 1960s. At the time, Telegraph Road was a two-lane highway, and the area wasn’t as developed as it is today. The road was widened to five lanes in 1999.

In the decade since, Turn on the Signal contends, vehicle accidents have increased near the campus because MoDOT failed to plan for traffic control when adding more lanes.

“There’s already been a generation of kids that have had to deal with this on a daily basis,” Seidel said. “There’s already been teachers and bus drivers and aides and everyone else who has to go in and out of that school for 10 years.

“It is not a problem that was created by the schools,” she added. “It is not a problem that needs to be remedied by the schools … (MoDOT was) told about it all this time, that they need to fix it. And now they’re going to come back and target just the Mehlville taxpayers for a state project? No, doesn’t fly.”

Roughly 1,100 pupils combined attend Oakville Middle and Wohlwend Elementary.

Twenty-one buses serve the two schools, and all of them at some point have to make a risky left turn into or out of the campus, across traffic without a light, Director of Transportation Diane Wedel said.

“Even one bus making a left is not a good situation,” Wedel said. “I don’t even like making a left in a car.”

The middle school’s resource officer, Angie Logaglio, used to direct traffic at the intersection, but county police eventually told her she couldn’t be out there without a marked police car, Wedel said.

“They won’t let her go out and stop traffic anymore. And that really made a big difference when she could do that,” she said.

Oakville Middle parents raised the issue of a new signal at several points during a recent community engagement session for the school district’s COMPASS II — Charting the Mehlville-Oakville Path to Advance Successful Schools — initiative.

“‘When are we gonna get a stoplight?’ is probably our most-asked question,” Principal Mike Salsman told them. “Between 7:45 and 8:45 a.m., it’s really a mess out there. We would settle for (a traffic signal) to be active during peak times.”

A call to MoDOT Chief Engineer Kevin Keith’s office in Jefferson City was returned by Assistant District Engineer Tom Blair, who works out of the department’s St. Louis office.

Blair said while MoDOT supports the installation of a new signal for Oakville Middle-Wohlwend Elementary, it would not bend its rules to fully fund the project.

“We only have so much money. Everybody thinks we have a ton of money, but we have limited funds within the state of Missouri going to transportation,” Blair said. “Our policy always has been, from the very first school signal installed in Missouri until today, that we split the cost of school signals. We’re not changing that policy or position in this case.

“We’re not treating the Mehlville School District any differently than any other school district,” Blair added. “We’ve always looked at it as we’re contributing financially to school signals but we’re not going to pay for an entire school signal, because if we do that then it’s pretty easy for every school board in the state of Missouri to ask us for a school signal at their school.”

Asked roughly how much a new signal would cost in total, Blair referred the Call to MoDOT engineer Kristy Yates, who was unavailable for comment by press time.

Blair said MoDOT’s foremost responsibility is to “maintain and operate a safe transportation system” statewide.

“We have to be very diligent with the limited tax resources that we get to make sure we take of our primary responsibility, which is smooth roads and safe bridges,” he said. “And if we don’t do that, our money gets all disbursed out and we make little groups happy here and there but overall we haven’t done our job as a state agency.

“When you pay the gas tax every time you go to pump, you expect the roads you drive on to be smooth and you expect bridges not to fall down. That’s our responsibility.”