Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Walk or bike to school via the Safe Routes

Mountain Rides program helps get people out of their cars

Express Staff Writer

Tracy Baer escorts 6-year-old Neva Baer to Hailey Elementary School via the Safe Routes to School Elm Street connector built last summer. Mountain Rides Transportation Authority has received about $400,000 in federal grants for Safe Routes to School projects in the Wood River Valley.

Parents can feel more comfortable about their children biking or walking to school these days, at least in places where wide new sidewalks have been constructed through the federally funded Safe Routes to School program.

Using the program, Mountain Rides Transportation Authority has completed four Safe Routes to School projects in the past two years, has two others it hopes to fund soon and has long-range plans for even more Safe Routes to School projects.

Danielle Travers, Mountain Rides bike and pedestrian coordinator, said the Safe Routes to School program is part of a larger Mountain Rides strategy to "get people out of their cars and either on the bus, the bike or on foot." However, at many city locations in the Wood River Valley, sidewalks are nonexistent, Travers said, and many parents aren't comfortable about letting their young students bike or walk to school along routes that might be less than safe.

"This is obviously a huge concern for parents," she said. "We want parents to feel that kids can get to school safely."

Mountain Rides is not alone in this endeavor and has numerous partners involved in the program, including the Blaine County Recreation District, the Blaine County School District and the cities of Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue. There's also the Idaho Transportation Department, which administers Safe Routes to School funding through the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration.

Mountain Rides has received about $400,000 in federal grants so far to pay for the local program, which includes not only sidewalk construction, but also crossing signal installation, organizing neighborhood bike and walk groups, educating the public about the benefits of biking and walking and even providing free bike helmets for children who can't afford them.

Mountain Rides has completed four Safe Routes to School projects so far. Two were finished in Ketchum in 2008 and one each in Hailey and Bellevue in 2009.

In Ketchum, sidewalks were widened on First Avenue between Fifth and Seventh streets to provide a Safe Route to School link from the Wood River Trails system to Hemingway Elementary School. Also, a new signal crossing was installed on Warm Springs Road near the YMCA to provide a safer way for youngsters to bike or walk across the heavily traveled road.

The Hailey project involved construction of 10-feet-wide sidewalks along Elm Street to provide a Safe Routes to School corridor between the Wood River Trails system and Hailey Elementary School.

New sidewalks were constructed in Bellevue on Fifth and Cedar streets to provide a safe route from the trail system to Bellevue Elementary School.

Travers said Mountain Rides expects to have federal funding this summer to pave an existing dirt path in southeast Hailey that provides a shortcut from Glenbrook Drive to Woodside Boulevard.

A second project in the Woodside area is projected to begin in 2011. That project is for construction of two blocks of sidewalk where none now exists on Woodside Boulevard near the Balmoral apartment complex.

Beyond that, Mountain Rides has worked with the recreation district to map out plans for linking Safe Routes to School throughout the entire Wood River Valley, using the trails system and Mountain Rides bus routes.

"We are a really progressive community in terms of our bike and pedestrian and general transit program," Travers said.

Mountain Rides is one of about 400 nonprofit organizations involved nationally in the Safe Routes to School program. In addition to providing safety on the way to school, the national program helps children become more physically active, reduces traffic congestion, improves air quality and enhances neighborhood safety.

Besides that, Travers said, "the kids love it. They have so much fun when we have bike-to-school days.

"It makes sense for the school district to support the program because studies have shown that students perform better when they bike or walk to school because they're more alert when they get there. And hopefully, we can get employers to think along the same lines because you're much more productive at work if you ride your bike or walk."

Terry Smith:

Safe Routes facts

According to Mountain Rides Transportation Authority, the following facts support the need for Safe Routes to School:

·More than 25 percent of morning traffic can be attributed to cars dropping children off at school.

·Experts recommend that children get at least 60 minutes of exercise each day.

·In 1969, 42 percent of children walked to school. Today that number is 13 percent.

·Studies show that children who walk or bike have higher academic performance than those who are driven.

·A family with children who bike or walk to school reduces its carbon use by .164 metric tons per year.

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