PHOTO CAPTION: Cars slowly make their way up Shawsheen Road, stuck in the middle of the 7:30 morning traffic. This car procession occurs each morning and can take quite a bit to make it from the bottom of the hill, past West Middle, and finally up the AHS driveway. “The best advice I can give you is to get to school early,” advises Principal Conrad, as he knows how students can get stuck in these long backed up lines.
By Camille Storch
“Good Morning, AHS,” a voice crackles over the intercom. “We will be holding the bell for a couple of minutes. Teachers, I will come back on when you can take attendance. Thank you.” This message blasts into the classroom at least two to three times per week, disrupting the beginning of the first block. Many are wondering, Why do we have to hold the bell each day? The answer is simple: Traffic.
On September 13, the Merrimack Valley experienced a series of gas explosions caused by an over-pressurized piping system running through homes and businesses in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover. In order to restore heat and gas to the affected homes, all of the lines and pipes had to be replaced on the main roads. The construction is creating problems as it seemingly continues reoccurring at a new site every day or even every hour. The difficulty with the roads has influenced families and workers alike. It’s also had a huge effect on Andover High students’ ability to make it to school and practices on time.
“I think it’s really good that they are trying to restore the gas as quickly as possible, but to me, it seems that they do it at the most inconvenient of times,” stated senior Ari Vecchio. Vecchio drives to school almost every day with her younger brother Michael and has been experiencing major traffic on the way in and out of AHS. “I respect what [Columbia Gas] is trying to do, but it causes a lot of traffic, all of the time…. When some roads are closed, it can be hard to get to the high school, even more so getting home.”
Vecchio runs cross country each day after school and doesn’t end up leaving the high school until around 4-4:15 p.m., when “there is always traffic everywhere and [she] ha[s] to take alternate routes.” She thinks that it would be a bit more organized if Columbia Gas sectioned the work off by street and had a bunch of people just getting that street done at the same time. She closes with the fact that she is losing time off of first block each morning, as the school is constantly holding the bell for students to be able to get to class on time: “Only a few of my teachers [will] start right on time, but most of them will say, ‘Ok, let’s wait for the bell to ring,’ which definitely disrupts the academic flow of the mornings.”
During the gas explosions, around forty houses exploded and caught on fire with over eighty individual fires occurring in the end. The aftermath included one man dead when a chimney fell on his car and twenty-five people being brought to the hospital as injured, with three in critical condition. 30,000 residents of the three towns were forced to evacuate from their homes, with some still not able to live in their houses because they have no heat. The first explosion went off at 4:15 pm, and at one point in the early afternoon, eighteen fires were burning simultaneously, forcing the officials to create a 10-alarm response. The restoration process required 48 miles of gas pipeline to be replaced with an extended expected end date of December 16.
“Obviously, the traffic has been horrendous,” affirmed Mr. Conrad, principal of Andover High School. Conrad shared that it was really tough for the high school and West Middle in the past couple of weeks because of the amount of construction that was happening right on Shawsheen Road. “In the mornings, we have been telling teachers to wait on the attendance because the traffic is so hard. You could come to school in the morning and have one set of road closures, you could go out at lunchtime and have a different set, and when you go home you could have a different set, so it’s hard because…people don’t know when or where [the blocked roads] are going to happen.”
Conrad stated that students and faculty alike are still without gas in their homes; some even have to stay in hotels and trailers because they don’t have hot water or heat. “That’s part of it, it’s really really hard and it’s just starting to wear on people,” Conrad said. He added that the staff of AHS want to make sure that students are getting hot showers, heat at home, and a feeling that the school is a nice and comfortable place for them to be during the day. There is an option for those who do not have hot water at home, to come to school early in the mornings and shower in the locker rooms.
Conrad takes notice that the traffic end of the restoration process is affecting everyone coming in or out of town. “The main impact of the traffic and construction [on our school] has been making sure people are getting to school on time, and that they can get to school on time,” he said.
“We’ve tried to be lenient to the fact that [the traffic] is ever changing…,” he continued. “The advice I would give [to making it to school on time] is to leave early. The earlier you get to school, the less traffic there is, the less hectic it is [and] you get a chance to come in, find a spot (in the hallway, cafeteria) and just chill for a minute, talk to friends, finish up the last bit of homework, get breakfast, etc.” Hopefully, the student body will take that into consideration next time they are trying to find what is a good time to leave in order to not feel rushed.
Conrad added that he always plans to be at the school no later than seven o’clock. The traffic tends to be the worse from 7:15 – 7:45, according to Conrad, so he advises staying away from those times and trying to be proactive about coming earlier.
Prior to the gas leaks and explosions, there was still a consistent line of traffic. Conrad stated, “We are always looking at the traffic patterns, to see if there is something about the particular pattern that we can change.”
Conrad affirmed that the general traffic is also due to the fact that many are opting to drive rather than take the school bus, yet he knows that every high school in every state has similar problems and that at the moment there isn’t a quick solution for Andover High. “We have 2,000, plus or minus, people trying to…start school at 7:44,” he said. “[If] you put 2,000 people on Shawsheen Road, it’s going to be crowded…and it is the same situation in the afternoon. There are some things that we could change about our traffic patterns. We only have two ways into our campus. If we had a third way in or had a buses-only lane, or cars in, more parking…. We don’t have any of those things…yet.”
Along with Andover, the two other neighboring towns have also been in the process of reconstruction and restoration of gas lines. North Andover High School Principal Chet Jackson says that his school has been affected by the traffic on some days, yet their police have been working with crews daily to minimize traffic. Jackson also added,“[NAHS] has several families without heat and hot water. Some have been living in hotels as far away as Revere, and that gas process has also affected staff that lives in the town.”
Michael Fiato, headmaster of Lawrence High School, states, “The impact has been very significant. The affected areas have been under roadwork repair causing traffic congestion and road closures, which impacts travel time in a very dense community such as ours.” Fiato feels that the impact has been extremely significant. He adds families could be housed in a hotel up to 25 miles away, which means that they need to commute each day to school and be able to get there on time. He says, “[Our] students are resilient and our attendance rates have not been impacted, but I do believe that the social-emotional and psychological toll is significant.”
The process has also affected parking for LHS, with “gas and other emergency road crews…using the old Showcase Theatre for their staging area…which is impacting traffic and usurp[ing] parking spots for [the] staff.” Fiato recognizes that this a “massive endeavor,” replacing over 50 miles of gas pipelines in a city like Lawrence, where homes, wires, and piping are on the older side. He also added, “Staff and students understand that these decisions are meant to address the situation for the families affected by the disaster [and] thus are exercising patience and understanding during this process.”
As time goes on, the number of days per week that the bell is being held at AHS will likely decrease as the gas line replacement system comes closer and closer to the end. On Dec. 16, Columbia Gas is supposed to have restored all gas back to residents who had lost it. This will include all heat, hot water, and appliances that had been broken during the gas leak. Yet, many have not taken into consideration that all of the paving crews will be back at some point, in order to clean up all the divots and ridges added to the street while the crews were digging. This may cause yet again another bout of traffic going from current single-laned roads to full streets being blocked off. This paving process might not occur until after winter for the sake of weather, and we will probably not find out the exact date until everyone has their gas back.
Will Andover High School be able to sustain good attendance again during that time period as they are now? Will the town community be able to handle another round of planning ahead and sitting in your car for 40 minutes when it would normally take 10 to get from point A to point B? We will simply have to wait and see, and hopefully, pray that December 16 comes with answers.