TRAVERSE CITY — Four groups walked and wheeled away from Central Grade School with one mission: Make routes safer for students to walk and bike to school.
Melissa Hogan and her son, Jack, a fifth-grader at the school, were among one team. The two walked along a preplanned route with Dan Thorell, a father of two Central Grade School students, and city Planning and Engineering Assistant Missy Luick.
“I really think if you had better, safer routes, you’d have more kids walking,” Melissa Hogan said. “That’s my thinking, because you just can’t send kids out if there’s no sidewalks the whole way.”
Sixteen others took part in what’s called a walking audit as officials for Central Grade School and nine others in Traverse City prepare to apply for a Safe Routes to School grant. The federal program provides funding for sidewalks, bike lanes or paths and other safety-related improvements, as previously reported. Central Grade School is one of 10 public and private schools in town seeking a grant.
On Wednesday, the groups marked their observations on a stack of sheets, one for each block: rough pavement in a crosswalk here, a broken sidewalk there, and in several places, sidewalk ramps that lack the Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant truncated domes.
Jack Hogan said his mom drives him to school, and Melissa said they typically park a few blocks away and walk. She’s seen the chaos around Central Grade School each morning and afternoon as parents mob the neighborhood to pick up their kids.
“The madness that ensues around this school, it’s so dangerous,” she said.
Those dangerous conditions are why Melissa Hogan is participating, she said. Her son will be in a different school by the time construction starts on improvements near the school, but she wants future students to have safer ways to get there.
The four groups identified their priorities for needed repairs near Central Grade School, Luick said Thursday. Safer crossings on Union Street and rerouting a cross-town bike route that runs through a commercial alley for a stretch were among the requests.
Norte Executive Director Ty Schmidt led a group of six fourth- and fifth-graders on a bike ride along one of the routes. They gathered their own observations, including pockmarked roads that made for rough riding, and a generally scary experience on Eighth Street.
“There’s potholes, there’s fast cars, it’s loud, they didn’t really like it,” he said.
Luick said she’s waiting for some feedback, including from Grand Traverse County Commissioner Tom Mair and his wife Susan Odgers; she navigated one route with her wheelchair, and Luick said Odgers wanted to type her observations.
The next step is to gather all the observations at an action plan meeting, Luick said. Participants will map problem areas to identify the highest priorities near each school. The date for Central Grade School’s next meeting isn’t scheduled.
City Planner Russ Soyring recently gave commissioners an update on progress made in seeking the grants since city leaders gave it the nod in October 2016. Soyring, Luick and other city staff have forged ahead with help from biking advocacy group Norte and Traverse Area Recreational and Transportation Trails.
They’ve organized at least 20 meetings, surveyed parents and students and conducted walking audits like Wednesday’s for other schools, Soyring said. Organizers put their findings into an action report for each school.
Each school could receive up to $200,000, and by applying for several schools at once, funds can be shifted to the schools with costlier needs, Soyring said. Improvements must be within 2 miles of a school, meaning sidewalk, crosswalk or bike-related projects almost anywhere within city limits would qualify.
Soyring proposes splitting the grants into two phases, applying for simpler projects first, he said. That would entail applying for $600,000 for three schools this fall.
Other schools will be more complicated, particularly Traverse Heights Elementary, Soyring said. The surrounding neighborhood is largely void of much of the kind of infrastructure needed for safe routes.
Barlow Street is especially in need of a sidewalk, but it crosses jurisdictions, Soyring said. Plus, the city will need to obtain easements on private land as well as a maintenance agreement with Garfield Township. So he suggested applying for Traverse Heights Elementary and six others next year.
“It’s a matter of, we don’t want to move these schools, but we don’t want to delay the program and momentum,” he said.
Construction for projects related to those schools would begin in 2020, if the applications are successful, Soyring said. Construction for the three in the first phase would begin in 2019; Luick said Central Grade School likely would be in the first phase.
Commissioner Richard Lewis said he wanted to know how many kids who are living within a quarter-mile of each school are getting rides. The project will be a huge waste of effort if it doesn’t lead to more kids walking or biking to school as intended.
National data shows the program has made a difference in other communities that took part, Soyring said.
“The good thing is, walking has gone up 45 percent, and injuries have gone down for students who are walking and biking by 44 percent,” Soyring said.