The City of Ithaca and Ithaca City School District are working together to make it safer for students to get to school.
The city and school district recently received a Safe Routes to School Grant from the state Department of Transportation. The award of $297,950 will be used to make infrastructure improvements for walking and biking to three ICSD schools — Boynton Middle, Fall Creek Elementary and Beverly J. Martin Elementary. The funding also will cover the development of non-infrastructure improvements aimed at engaging students in educational activities about walking and biking to school.
Margaret Boice, assistant superintendent for business services, told the Board of Education at its Jan. 8 meeting that the district found out about the ability to apply for a Safe Routes to School grant last June around the time when a group of Ithaca High School students gave presentations on issues surrounding safety getting to the high school.
“It just seemed to meld well, so I made contact with the city officials and they had done it before, so they were quite excited to do it,” said Boice.
Representatives from the district and the city met over the summer to do a preliminary submission in August followed by a final application in October.
“When we put it in, we had been told at the meeting that $100,000 dollars was the threshold that they were looking at awarding,” related Boice. “But as we were going through what we wanted to do, it reached $300,000.
“So we said, well we’re going to send that in, thinking that they’ll just pare it down and just give us something closer to $100,000,” she added. “We were pleased to find out that they funded the entire thing.”
The grant project will be broken into two pieces, with the city handling the infrastructure side of the project and the district handling the non-infrastructure activities.
“The school district’s responsibility in this will be awareness activities, educational activities about walking to school and biking to school, and actually doing things like a walk to school week, having some kind of incentives for kids to walk to school or bike to school,” said Boice, adding that there is a Safe Routes to School curriculum the district can incorporate into their activities.
The city is the lead agency for the project.
“For the infrastructure activities, really the key piece of this project will be establishing a network of traffic-calmed routes that students can travel on — either walking or biking on — to get to the different schools,” explained Kent Johnson, junior transportation engineer for the city, who is serving as the main contact for the project at the city.
Johnson said there will be three basic kinds of traffic-calming measures used in the project, the first being a small number of speed humps.
“We have an idea at this point where those will be approximately installed, but we do need to do more data collection, collecting speed data for how people are actually travelling along those streets before we make a final determination of where to put those devices,” said Johnson.
The second type of improvement will be lowering the speed limit in the areas around the school to 25 miles per hour, as low as you can go in the state from the city’s lowest limit of 30 miles per hour.
“That five mile an hour difference actually makes a pretty big safety improvement because at those speeds, one, if a vehicle does make an impact with a pedestrian or bicyclist the impact is actually much less with that five mile an hour difference and that impact is less likely to happen because driving five mile an hour slower, you can actually stop in a much shorter distance,” said Johnson. “Another benefit is having the speed limits lowered to 25 will help to identify the routes as something different and special so it will be a little bit easier for the general public to understand what the routes are.”
The third type of improvement will be signs and pavement markings to identify the route and way-finding signs.
“This route does not only cater to students trying to get back and forth to school, but anybody interested in bicycling through the area will get other information that’s helpful,” said Johnson.
There is overlap in the types of improvements planned and routes with the city’s Bicycle Boulevard Plan.
“The traffic calmed-routes that are part of this project are almost identical to the routes selected in the Bike Boulevard Plan,” said Johnson. “The only difference is that when we submitted the application for the safe routes to school project, we eliminated pieces of the Bike Boulevard Plan that did not directly relate to the school.”
But essentially, Johnson said, the funding is allowing the city to develop the bike boulevard routes with some tailoring to the schools.
“In this particular case, we are looking to install a bike lane along a portion of Cayuga Street which will make a final connection up to the middle school,” said Johnson. “So we do have room on Cayuga Street from Falls northward up to where the middle school property starts to be able to put a bike lane in there.”
The bike lane is a small but important part of the project to make, Johnson said.
High schools are not eligible for the grant, but the proximity of Boynton to IHS will allow some of the issues around the high school to be addressed.
“It was very convenient that it worked out this way,” said Johnson. “I would say that our primary focus here will be the students at the three participating schools that are of an age and an ability that they can actually walk or bike to those schools. But certainly there are interested stakeholders.”
Stakeholders include the general community as well as those at the high school, Johnson pointed out.
“There will be plenty of opportunities as we develop this project to involve anybody in the community who is interested in participating, providing feedback, there will be space for them to be involved in it,” he said. “I would hope that students at the high school or teachers or parents — or whomever is involved in the high school — that they would be involved in this project, because it benefits them.
“I think that high school students are also in a position to be a good role model for younger students,” Johnson added.
BJM, Fall Creek and Boynton were selected for the application because they offered the most competitive advantage.
“By selecting these schools, it seemed to give our grant application the highest probability of being successful because the students at these three schools, for a number of reasons, have a very good opportunity for walking and biking to school,” explained Johnson. “And at these particular schools there are a lot of students who are not eligible for busing. So then if they’re not eligible for busing because they live too close to the school, then they’re in a situation where they’re either walking and biking to school or being driven by parents.
“We seemed to have a good opportunity here, as opposed to picking a school that because of its location its actually very difficult to walk or bike to the school,” he added.
The project is still only at a planning level with some “educated guesses” being made about where improvements could be made, Johnson said.
“At this point I’m not even fully aware yet of the challenges that students are facing,” he said. “I haven’t talked to any students or any teachers or any parents. Once we have an opportunity to talk with them about what their actual concerns are, that may help steer us in a slightly different direction or help us focus on what the most pressing needs are.”
In the coming months, contract issues will be worked out between the state, district and city for the project. By summer, preliminary design for the infrastructure work should begin, as well as the development of the non-infrastructure activities.
“Because of a number of factors, the process is going to take a number of years to get through,” said Johnson, “so I don’t anticipate that any physical infrastructure will actually be constructed until 2015 or thereabouts.
“Basically, in the next year we’ll be working on getting the design concepts together and working with the public and then probably the majority of 2014 we’ll be getting the plans finalized and everything approved,” he added, “and then in the following year, in 2015, will be likely when the measures will actually be installed.”
Johnson said he anticipated that non-infrastructure activities could begin a little sooner, in 2014.
“The positive side is that it will allow plenty of time for the public to be involved and for us to have designs in place that we feel very comfortable with and we will not be in the situation where we have to rush through anything,” said Johnson, who encourages anyone with concerns about a specific area around the three schools should contact him or Boice, saying that soon a system for public input and engagement should be organized and set up.
He expressed hope that support for the project could allow work and activities to continue after the grant project has been completed.
“I’m really hoping, and I anticipate, that if this project is successful then after its funding period of time is done in a few years that there will be enough interest in the community to keep these activities going for years to come,” Johnson said. “Once they’re established, hopefully they’ll have a momentum and be able to carry forward.
“But, in order for that to happen there needs to be interest in the community, from parents and teachers to get enough of an inertia going that they can continue after the grant period is done,” he added.
Questions or comments about the project can be directed to Johnson at (607) 274-6528 or Boice at (607) 274-2121.