A planned traffic signal at Austin High's entrance on Modaus Road Southwest is in jeopardy, and Decatur Council President Paige Bibbee said it's because the city's school board may be playing election year politics.
“We’ve been talking about this for more than a year, and we’ve done what the school system asked us to do,” Bibbee said after a 2-2 school board vote this week failed to advance a measure that would reimburse the city for the cost of the light.
“I’m taking the light bid off the council agenda (for Monday),” she said.
School board members Dwight Jett and Michele Gray King voted Tuesday against paying the $116,455 bid from Pro Electric of Huntsville for the light. Board President Karen Duke and Vice President Donnie Lane voted for Superintendent Michael Douglas’ recommendation.
Board member Peggy Baggett was absent from the meeting.
Jett said he voted against paying for the traffic light “because this is a city project and the council should pay for it.”
King didn’t say why she opposed paying the money and did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Jett and King both voted for the the school system's fiscal 2020 budget and district capital improvement plan, which included $125,000 for the project.
Lane, who represents the Austin area, said he didn’t "have a clue,” when asked why Jett and King opposed transferring money to the city. “We’ve been talking about this for over a year, and there has been ample opportunity for them to express their opposition to the plan.”
The city agreed to bid the project for the school system because it has the rights of way and owns the road where the light is being installed.
Bibbee, Douglas, Lane and DCS Chief Financial Officer Melanie Maples said the agreement from the beginning has been that the school system would pay for the traffic light.
Maples said money is set aside in the budget for the project and the city has agreed to maintain the light once it is installed.
Douglas said no one disputes that the traffic light is needed, and “we have to find a way to get this done.” He said doing nothing is not an option.
The traffic signal bid was included on the initial agenda for the council meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday, but it was not on the agenda available Wednesday on the city website. As council president, Bibbee sets the agenda.
“They asked us to do this for them and we have,” Bibbee said, adding that the council has spent about $14,000 for engineering plans. “We did everything in good faith from day one, and the school system agreed to pay for the light. They made the rules of the game.”
Bibbee said she was “stunned” by Tuesday’s vote and said it is time for the council and school board to sit down in a meeting and discuss the traffic signal “because this is a student safety issue. Because of safety concerns, we expedited this project and pulled city engineers from other projects.”
Bibbee said politicians “sometimes do funny things during an election year, and I hope that’s not the case here, but I wonder.”
The issue of whether to install a light at the location has been debated since 2015 when the school board announced that the front entrance would be off Modaus Road. The school board purchased the 77.5-acre site at the corner of Modaus Road Southwest and Shady Grove Lane in 2014.
A 2017 study by traffic consultant Skipper Inc. didn’t recommend putting a light on Modaus Road, but Decatur Police Chief Nate Allen disagreed with the study’s conclusion because he worried about students leaving the school.
The school opened in August 2018 and there were two accidents involving students at the Modaus Road site during the 2018-19 school year.
Lane said there was another accident at the site this week.
DCS Project Manager Lee Edminson told the board last month that if everything went as planned, it would probably be November before the traffic signal is installed because the mast arm, which hangs over the road and holds the light, isn’t something the Alabama Department of Transportation keeps in its inventory.