Pacific Highlands Ranch parents seek school bus relief for traffic woes

Solana Beach School District administration building.
Solana Beach School District administration building.
(Karen Billing)

Several Pacific Highlands Ranch residents came before the Solana Beach School District board on Sept. 8, asking the district to reconsider school buses in order to provide an easier commute for families.

“Going out of the PHR community and driving kids to school has become a headache,” parent Bonnie Li said. “School buses would significantly help reduce the traffic in the community and increase the safety for our children.”

Traffic in Pacific Highlands Ranch, particularly on Carmel Valley Road and Del Mar Heights Road, has been an issue for the last several years as more development has occurred in the area.

With the Solana Beach School District (SBSD) board’s 2019 decision not to build the district’s eighth school in Pacific Highlands Ranch, PHR children were assigned to schools in Carmel Valley or Solana Santa Fe in Rancho Santa Fe.

Prior to the pandemic, there were discussions about a pilot transportation program for the 2020-21 school year. The district had considered one route to Solana Santa Fe and one route to Carmel Creek and Solana Pacific from Pacific Highlands Ranch—at the time, the two buses were projected to cost the district about $126,000 to $198,000 a year. After the pandemic hit, the pilot bus program was dropped.

Now over two years later, parents would like the district to explore busing once again.

Parent Ron Hao said he has two children, one at Carmel Creek and one at Solana Pacific in Carmel Valley, and it’s “pretty bad” competing with the middle school and high school traffic on Del Mar Heights Road. The family has to leave earlier and earlier so he can walk his kindergartner into their classroom and then get his older child to school. Just to go one way, about four miles, can take 40-45 minutes.

Piling onto the traffic this school year is the synched-up bell schedules of the area’s many schools. Senate Bill 328, signed into law in 2019, mandated a later start to the school day: school start times for middle school must be no earlier than 8 a.m. and start times for high school no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

Canyon Crest Academy used to start at 8 a.m. and Torrey Pines at 7:40 a.m., now both begin at 8:30 a.m. Schools on the Del Mar Heights Road-Carmel Valley Road corridor, including Pacific Trails, Solana Ranch, Carmel Creek, Solana Pacific and Cathedral Catholic High School all begin at the same time or within a five to 20-minute window.

In addition to all of the schools now starting at the same time, parents noted many employers have also asked employees to go back to the office instead of working remotely, adding to traffic returning to pre-pandemic levels.

“I keep on seeing the traffic coming back,” said PHR resident Chris Fan. “I’m hoping that having at least an option for the families to send their kids by school bus is going to be a much safer option.”

Neighboring Del Mar Union School District opened its new PHR school last month and fewer families are commuting to Sycamore Ridge and Ashley Falls. The district only offers transportation for Del Mar Heights School students as the rebuild continues.

In 2020, San Dieguito Union High School District eliminated its seven middle school bus routes due to a budget deficit and declining ridership. The district’s highest bus use was in Carmel Valley, where two morning routes were at 100% capacity and another at 90% in 2019-20; the afternoon routes were up to 75% capacity. Transportation is still offered for students with special needs as well as shuttle services to Torrey Pines and Sunset High Schools for its highest-need students.

The SBSD school board does not discuss topics that are raised during public comment, but during board reports members acknowledged school traffic and safety issues such as the increasing number of students on e-bikes on Carmel Valley and Solana Beach roads.

“It’s hair-raising right now,” board member Gaylin Allbaugh said of the school traffic on Del Mar Heights Road, noting there are a lot of kids and parents out on the streets including young drivers and pedestrians. “I’ve lived through 12 years of going back to school and dismissal but this is the first time where we’ve really converged all of our schools at this half-hour juncture where all of the schools are getting out at the same time.”

“Going slow will avoid a lot,” she said. “Let’s be sensible and safe.”