TRAVERSE CITY — School administrators, Traverse City engineers and more are doing their homework to secure a $2-million Safe Routes to School grant.
City Planner Russ Soyring said the city has conditional approval to build more infrastructure aimed at helping students of 10 schools within the city walk or bike to class. Specific improvements range from sidewalks and trails to enhanced crosswalks.
Now, the city is looking to secure a handful of easements it needs to build the proposed walkways, including one that will meander through Northwestern Michigan College’s campus, Soyring said.
The college’s board of trustees will consider the matter on Nov. 25, and everything’s due to the Michigan Department of Transportation by Dec. 6.
The state could seek construction contract bids in March, Soyring said.
“If that was the case, it would probably be in May that construction can start,” he said.
MDOT is allowing for two construction seasons because of the magnitude of the project, Soyring said. Work on half of the planned infrastructure would start in May 2020, and the second half in May 2021.
Planning for the grants included walking audits to identify barriers that could discourage a child from walking or biking to school, Soyring said.
Part of the grant goes toward education, with $80,000 going to El Grupo Norte. Ben Boyce, the organization’s program director, said that’ll go toward an after-school bike safety program called Bike Más. That includes a 90-minute bike safety program and rides with groups of five to six upper elementary or middle school students.
“That’s tied directly to the Safe Routes to Schools concept, where kids are learning how to independently move safely around their school and, theoretically, from the school to their house,” he said.
Another, called Estrellas, aims at younger kids by teaching them how to ride balance bikes, Boyce said — they don’t have pedals, so the rider propels themselves with their feet.
Those programs give kids the option to bike to school if they choose, Norte co-founder Ty Schmidt said. The organization is focused on being more than just “cheerleaders,” and wants to examine school district policies that impact how kids get to and from school.
Schmidt attended the national Safe Routes to School conference in Tampa, Florida, he said. There, he presented the findings of a system analysis examining why kids do and don’t walk to school. That, too, took a look at policy aspects — a school district’s transportation policy and where schools are sited, for example.
Traverse City Area Public Schools runs six of the 10 schools included in the grant, TCAPS Human Resources Executive Director Cindy Berck said — she’s also the district’s grant coordinator. She said the district will ensure its policies align with the initiative. Those could include policies for students who bike to school, she said.
TCAPS and others have been working on the latest round of grants for 18 months, Berck said. It’s not the first time Safe Routes to Schools funds helped the district help its walkers and bikers, with a previous round building trails and sidewalks around West Middle School.
There’s more work to do to meet the state’s grant requirements, Soyring said, including engineering work.
The state is also requiring State Historic Preservation Office sign-off, and is particularly interested in protecting large, mature trees, Soyring said. Building the infrastructure would require cutting down 130 trees, 24 of which range from 6-8 inches in diameter, seven are 19-36 inches and one greater than 37 inches.
Soyring acknowledged cutting trees likely will cause some public blowback. Planners routed walkways around trees wherever they could, but in some cases tight pathways, utility poles or houses prevented this, he said.
One road near Willow Hill Elementary School is wide enough that building a sidewalk alongside it would alter residents’ lawns, Soyring said. One option is to ask the state to allow narrowing the road, although that’s unlikely to succeed, he said. The city could also drop that length of sidewalk from grant plans, then rebuild the stretch of road using city funds to a more narrow width.
Berck said a lot of collaborative effort went into securing the grant that’ll benefit both public and parochial schools.
“It’s going to be providing a lot of infrastructure improvements to encourage students to access their neighborhood schools a way that improves their physical fitness and health, and we’re really excited about the opportunity,” she said.
The city’s own, separate plans to fill in gaps in its sidewalk network and fix crumbling walkways is progressing, with city commissioners approving a $3.1-million contract to build or fix more than 18 miles of sidewalk in April.