TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City’s Safe Routes to School program kicked off infrastructure improvements to better provide students safe commutes and to encourage physical activity.

A $2 million-plus grant awarded the City thru the Michigan Department of Transportation, along with $97,500 in local matching dollars, funds upgrades to 3.5 miles of sidewalks and bike lanes surrounding 10 Traverse City K-8 public and parochial schools.

Walking or biking to school was once the primary mode of transportation for students attending neighborhood schools, according to city reports. But only 56 percent of today’s students living within 1.4 miles of their school travel independently.

Central Grade School principal Toby Tisdale said among the Seventh Street school’s nearly 600 students a higher percentage of students receive transportation from parents than travel independently. The SRTS project opens access.

“For some, there are streets that don’t have sidewalks,” Tisdale said. “A lot of the missing pieces will be filled in and help students get to school safely.”

The project has been in development since 2016.

Upgrades focus on sidewalk expansion, bike lanes, traffic calming, crosswalk improvements and signage. There is no cost to most property owners and no street closures are expected during construction periods.

Four school districts collaborated to identify areas that would meet SRTS goals.They include Traverse City Public Schools, Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools, Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District and Traverse City Trinity Lutheran.

“It’s the first time all the school districts came together for a public project,” said Norte Executive Director Ty Schmidt.

Norte, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging youth biking and physical activity,along with TART Trails and other community stakeholders, helped forward the project.

Norte involved students, parents and staff in walking audits around school neighborhoods to identify safety hazards, provide first-hand experiences of safety problems, ascertain solutions and build community awareness and support for SRTS.

The SRTS project is about more than the construction pieces, Schmidt explained. It’s about the culture of getting around, the sense of knowing where you are and strengthening the social fabric.

“Integrating movement into ordinary life used to be the norm. Somewhere we lost that,” Schmidt said. He added, “This is transformational.”

City staff designed SRTS upgrades. The project’s first target for improvement is the area surrounding Eastern Elementary School on Eastern Avenue.

City Planning Director Shawn Winter said all work is expected to be completed by early fall.

“There’s a play and recreation aspect, as well as building community,” he pointed out.

The SRTS project aligns with the City’s multi-million-dollar equity-based sidewalk gap and infill project begun in 2018.

The initiative involves upgrades across more than 10 miles. Traverse Heights neighborhood, underserved with pedestrian connectivity, is a primary beneficiary. A fall completion date is expected.

“It’s an important step in increasing safe and equitable transportation in the city,”Winter said.

The city has worked toward implementing sidewalk goals set by the City Commission in 2011.

Both initiatives support the City of Traverse City’s Complete Streets Policy which facilitates safe and convenient access for all legal road users, including pedestrians.

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