County schools to benefit from Safe Routes to School plans

Take a poll in a room of parents: How many of you walked to school? How many of you have children who walk to school?
Kim Ball and Jean Streeter of the Washington County Department of Public Health and Environment have seen the results of that poll. Many parents walked to school, but few or none of their children walk or bike to school today.
A planning grant from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) for seven schools in the South Washington County School District to explore Safe Routes to School will be used to turn that trend around.
Safe Routes to School (SRTS) is a national and international movement to create safe, convenient, and fun opportunities for children to bicycle and walk to and from school. When children have the opportunity to move under their own power to get to school they are healthier and ready to learn, Ball said.
Across the nation, SRTS programs have seen a decrease in traffic around schools of 20 percent to 60 percent. Schools have seen the number of children walking and biking to school double and have shown that more active children make smarter students.
Cottage Grove city staff members first approached the county for help in making pathways to school safer. That expanded to an March exploratory meeting with staff members from Cottage Grove and Woodbury, the school district and the county.
The school district has a mutual interest with the cities to find safe ways for children to get to school, said Dave Bernhardson, assistant superintendent for elementary schools in the district. There are schools that have infrastructure around them to get children to school, and there are those that don’t, he said.
“We want to make sure it is safe and secure” for children to walk or bike to school, he said. “We know both before and after school time has impacts throughout the school day, and we want that to be as safe and efficient as possible.”
Planning grants were not being offered when the process started. The key players collected the information for plans for the school district, which was eventually used to submit the grant proposal when the process opened.
The grant provides a MnDOT consultant to guide the school district through plans for safe routes to seven schools, three in Cottage Grove, three in Woodbury and one in St. Paul Park. Plans may review trails and sidewalks, crosswalks and crossing guards, even the way in which children approach a school. For example, should children approaching school on foot enter a different door from those being dropped off by a bus so they are away from traffic routes? Each aspect of a foot or bike trip to school is considered.
“It’s about getting kids to and from school in a more active way, but safely,” Ball said. “In our society, there is so much reliance on cars.”
“It’s not for everybody,” Streeter added, “but it provides another choice.”
The school principals and city planners will work directly with the consultant. The county will help with a community coalition, to help assure that communication, especially with the neighborhoods, continues through the process. County Engineer Wayne Sandberg said that the county Department of Public Works looks forward to working with the DPHE, local communities and schools to provide safe pedestrian connections adjacent to and across county highways.
All SRTS grants use federal funds, according to MnDOT, and no local match is required. Each grant includes a resolution of support from the local governing body to ensure community support. Grants for infrastructure projects, such as sidewalks and crosswalks, were not available this year.
Since 2005, MnDOT has awarded $11.3 million in federal funds to communities to support Safe Routes to School. The majority of funding – $9.9 million – was awarded for infrastructure projects.
“What we are excited about is that there are some pioneers who have set some initiatives forward that can help guide what we do,” Bernhardson said, and the district hopes to build on that knowledge.