It’s 7:30 a.m. on a wet, foggy Friday morning, and although there’s more than half an hour left before classes begin, cars are already backed up for nearly a mile in North Charleston.
Horns blare as vehicles try to cut into the long line of cars, minivans, SUVs and school buses, all trying to get to the same schools.
“This just isn’t working,” a minivan-driving woman tells police officers who were posted at an intersection near Academic Magnet High School and Charleston County School of the Arts.
What isn’t working, according to parents and students, is a strictly enforced city ban on drivers using neighborhood streets in Cameron Terrace and Oak Park to get to schools. The newly enforced restrictions — it’s a $237 fine and 4 points for violators — force cars and school buses to use a single lane to deliver about 2,000 students to Academic Magnet High School, Charleston County School of the Arts and three smaller public schools each morning.
Along the car line Friday, several students from School of the Arts hand out fliers to the all-but-stopped motorists, urging them to contact North Charleston’s mayor and City Council president to complain.
“Fight the power!” one driver shouts in approval, pumping her fist in the air.
But it was Mayor Keith Summey and City Council President Bob King, who both live in the neighborhood near the schools, who put the police crackdown in place. Both say hundreds of drivers were cutting through the quiet residential streets, often speeding.
“We started enforcing the law, and keeping people from driving through the neighborhoods,” King said. “People couldn’t even get out of their driveways.”
The largest schools in question, Academic Magnet and School of the Arts, are public magnet schools that draw students from all over the county, contributing to the large number of cars in the morning. Charleston Progressive Academy, North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary and Liberty Hill Academy are served by the same entrance road.
“I come from West Ashley, and it takes an hour and 15 minutes to get to school,” said School of the Arts student Tyler Adent, who with student William Waters was leafleting cars that morning. Parents had the same complaint.
“My husband left the house 45 minutes early, and my son was still late,” said Dee DiBona. “They have police all around there stopping people for cutting through, but they aren’t helping to move people along.”
The main bottleneck is the intersection at Lackawanna Boulevard and West Enterprise Street, where each car must come to a full stop, despite the fact that nearly all the traffic is coming from one direction. Police were posted there, but did not start waiving traffic through the intersection until after 8 a.m. Friday.
“The thing that confounds me is that there are police officers down there, and they are not giving right-of-way to the school traffic,” said Antonia Gourdie of West Ashley, who said it took her 27 minutes Friday to get from the corner of Mixson and East Montague avenues to the School of the Arts student drop-off less than a mile away. “I can understand why residents don’t want a lot of high school students coming through the neighborhood, but then you have to figure out how to get the traffic moving.”
Summey said that, starting today, police will direct traffic at the bottleneck intersection starting at 7:30 a.m.
“We’ll see how much that helps,” he said.
Emily Abedon of Sullivan’s Island said she can’t understand how the city can prohibit people from using public streets.
“Nobody can figure out what law is being broken,” said Abedon, who has three daughters attending School of the Arts. “It’s a free country, and we ought to have options for getting to school.”
King notes that “no through traffic” signs were posted to warn people from driving through the neighborhood. Large highway-sized lighted signs also warns drivers to use only Lackawanna Boulevard to get to the schools.
“We need to keep working on a solution,” Council President King said. “It’s our problem, but it’s the schools’ problem, too.”
Two city ordinances and a state law give the city authority to prohibit through-traffic, North Charleston spokesman Ryan Johnson said.
The response from the schools, so far, has been to warn parents that their children will be marked tardy if they are late.
School district spokesman Jason Sakran said the school board will discuss the issue at a meeting tonight.
“We know that there’s an issue out there,” Sakran said. “The city of North Charleston made the decision to change the traffic patterns; that’s not something that we did.”
Summey, however, faults the school district for not planning two direct entrances to the main school complex.
“That was a concern we gave to them when they built the high school,” he said. “It’s just a massive influx of people in 45 minutes.”
Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.