Millions For Safely Biking To School?
Sept. 29, 2016
Local school districts and nonprofits are working to secure millions in federal grants to get more kids safely walking or riding bikes to school.
Safe Routes to School is a federally-funded program encouraging students to walk or ride to school. Locally, it represents a cooperative effort among Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS), Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools (GTACS), Trinity Lutheran, city government, and local non-profits TART Trails and El Grupo Norte.
“Thirty years ago, fifty percent of kids walked or biked to school,” Norte’s Ty Schmidt says. Norte’s sole goal is to encourage students to walk or bike to school safely.
A recent school survey at Eastern Elementary showed 15 percent of students took the bus, 12 percent rode their bikes, and six percent walked. That meant that two-thirds of the students were dropped off by car. “We want to make it (riding or walking) the new normal,” says Schmidt.
Michigan’s Safe Routes to School program is managed by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), with support from the Michigan Fitness Foundation. Federal funding for Safe Routes to School was re-authorized as part of the surface transportation bill (FAST Act) in December 2015. As a result, every state has access to funds to encourage students to safely walk and bike to school.
Depending on infrastructure needs, the program can provide up to $200,000 per school, as well as up to $8,000 for non-infrastructure needs such as programming and instruction, often handled by a non-profit partner. For ten schools, that could bring a total investment of up to $2.1 million.
“The great part is there is no match needed from any school district. It does require (funding) from the city for the pre-engineering study,” says Cindy Berck, director of human resources at TCAPS. Grant monies would be used for installing or repairing sidewalks and/or trails, bicycle lanes, intersection improvements, bike parking facilities, lighting, and signage. All proposed improvements must be within two miles of a school. A complete list of potential infrastructure improvements can be found here.
Organizers are hopeful that studies could be completed in order to submit the grant application in August. Missy Luick, planning and engineering assistant for Traverse City, says the project would likely be done in phases. Berck said TCAPS will be doing student and parent surveys and walking audits to inspect the current conditions.
Thus far there have been two preliminary meetings, with another scheduled for Oct. 17 before the City Commission, which will be asked to support the project.
Meg Thomas Ackerman, the director of the statewide organization, says the program has numerous benefits: It helps improve kids’ health and reduce obesity. Physical activity boosts learning and memory. She says children, especially at the younger grades, have a need for socialization, which can be realized on the way to school, making it easier for them to concentrate on learning in class. It reduces the number of cars in parking lots, increasing air quality and lessening the potential for accidents.
Numerous other Michigan communities have worked with Safe Routes to School, including Detroit, Manchester, Dexter, Boyne City and East Jordan.