Pickerington seeking safe sidewalk routes

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 Messenger photo by Rachel Scofield
 At the end of the school day, a steady of stream of students leave Harmon Middle School with their bicycles.  Because of the numerous sidewalks and paths connecting Harmon Middle School to the nearby subdivisions, hundreds of students bike to school.  A coalition comprised of members of the school district, the city of Pickerington and Violet Township hope to enable more students to walk or bicycle to their schools.

To enable more Pickerington School District students to walk or ride their bicycles to school, a local coalition is seeking federal grant money to build bike trails and sidewalks.

The coalition, comprised of members of Violet Township, the city of Pickerington and the Pickerington school board, is asking the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) to award the Pickerington area a Federal Safe Routes to School grant.

The grant money would only apply to projects benefiting students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Of the hundreds of students living within a one mile radius of the district’s elementary, middle and junior high schools, most require transportation.

Because the district lacks sidewalks, the safest way for students to travel is by bus, said Dave Decsman, Pickerington schools’ transportation consultant.

Ira Weiss, a bicycling enthusiast who led the group’s meeting on Aug. 30, said that Fairfield Elementary has a short sidewalk ending at a lawn and, although Tussing Elementary has a walk signal, it lacks a sidewalk.

The group traveled throughout the school district street-by-street taking notes. They discovered that Harmon Middle School had the most success with bicyclists. Hundreds of students bike to Harmon. Harmon sits beside housing developments with safe routes to the school, Weiss said.

According to the Safe Routes to School Web site, nationwide fewer than 15 percent of all trips to school are made by walking or bicycling and half of the children arrive via private automobiles. In 1969, about half of the students walked or bicycled to school.

Housing developments in Violet Township are not required to provide sidewalks, Violet Township Trustee Terry Dunlap said. When people moved into the older suburbs they desired a rural atmosphere therefore they did not want city trappings such as sidewalks and curbs. Now tastes have changed and developers will earn an extra $20,000 to $30,000 per house if they include sidewalks.

Dunlap said he likes the federal program’s three-part focus; education, enforcement and infrastructure. He hopes to bring the Fairfield County Engineers office into the group because sidewalks are usually too cost prohibitive for the Engineers’ road projects.

"We (the Violet Township trustees) are enthused about the cooperation," Dunlap said. "The more we can do the better.  Cooperating we present a better profile to ODOT – school board, city and township."

Health issues

Congestion from parents dropping-off their children causes traffic problems around schools and exhaust from buses chokes the air. In addition, children leading sedentary lives are more prone to health problems.

Weiss said that if not for bicycling he would have died from diabetes and other health conditions.

Decsman said that, once safe paths to schools have been established, he expects parents will protest their children having to walk. He said the school district currently receives angry phone calls from residents who say their driveways are blocked by parents driving their children to bus stops.

About the ODOT grant

If ODOT selects Pickerington, the coalition may receive as much as $250,000 for infrastructure improvements such as new bike paths and crosswalks. They may also receive as much as $50,000 for education and safety programs.

Peggy Portier, a member of the coalition and an avid biker, said the education programs would include bicycle safety lessons.  Parents in her neighborhood encourage children to ride their bikes in lanes facing traffic which is incorrect. Bicyclists should always ride the same direction as cars.

The education/safety grant may also be used to train crossing guards or to provide officers to enforce speed limits.

The federal government provides ODOT with $3 million per grant cycle. This spring ODOT received requests totaling $30 million. ODOT decided to create new guidelines for applicants so that they could fairly decide which organizations should be awarded the grants.  ODOT did not publish the new guidelines until the end of July, although the deadline for applications is Sept. 7.

The new guidelines included inviting the public to an open forum. The guidelines also recommended gathering input from community members such as engineers, police and bicycling enthusiasts.

Because the Pickerington group already consisted of people who met the characteristics described, they completed the application in time to meet the deadline. The coalition hopes that other organizations will choose to apply for the next grant cycle in January rather than rush to meet the September deadline, Portier said.

Violet Township Engineer Greg Butcher said that ODOT will probably announce in January whether or not the Pickerington group received any money.

The Pickerington coalition has a long list of areas needing help and they plan to keep applying every grant cycle until all the needs are met, Portier said.

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