Drivers beware: Delta County kids will head back to school on Wednesday, Aug. 19. For students opting to walk or bike to campus, a coalition of Paonia residents and leaders is working to ensure that safe routes to school exist.
At the July 28 meeting of the Paonia town board, trustees voted to be the pass-through agent in partnership with the Colorado Department of Transportation's Colorado Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program on a $5,000 reimbursement grant.
Ellie Roberts, a teacher at Paonia Junior/Senior High School, was the grant writer. Funds came from a $25,000 grant from Action for Healthy Kids (AHK), a national volunteer organization working to improve student health and wellness, particularly in underserved areas, through collaboration with other organizations and people. AHK also awarded SRTS grants to Leadville, Center, Pagosa Springs and Basalt.
Grants are intended to be used as seed money to help identify and address barriers to biking and walking to schools, to help increase the number of K-8 students who bike and walk to and from school, and to address parent concerns about safety. They are also intended to encourage partnerships within communities and to include a sustainability component.
SRTS was established through federal legislation in 2005 to encourage children to walk or bike to school, and to allow communities to make routes to school more safe and appealing. SRTS encourages and facilitates planning, development and implementation of projects that will improve safety while reducing traffic, fuel consumption and air quality near schools.
Grant money is geared toward non-infrastructure projects, such as education, encouragement and enforcement, and can include crossing guard programs, audits of bicycle/pedestrian traffic, bicycle education programs, and safety and awareness brochures.
According to CDOT, "in 1969, half of all kids ages 5-18 walked or biked to school; by 2001 that number is around 10 percent, with 90 percent either riding bus or driven in individual car."
While distance and safety are the most common reasons for driving students to school, private vehicle trips for children living between one-quarter and one-half mile from school make up for about half of those vehicle trips, according to SRTS. In 2009, U.S, families drove an estimated 30 billion miles and made 6.5 billion trips - representing 10-14 percent of traffic on morning commutes.
Roberts moved her family from the Roaring Fork Valley, where pedestrian/bike trails are part of the transportation system. One of the first things her family noticed was that there weren't many kids riding bikes, said Roberts, and most of them weren't wearing helmets.
While applying for teaching jobs, Roberts put together a core group including Paonia mayor and avid bicyclist Neal Schwieterman, school administrators, and members of the North Fork Bicycle Club. In talking to community members they discovered that a lot of kids either didn't have a bike, or that the one they had needed to be fixed.
The brunt of the grant, or between $2,500 and $3,000, will be spent to install bicycle repair stations at the elementary and junior/senior high schools.
Trustee David Bradford said that the many distractions pedestrians and motorists face is "a huge concern and could play a bigger role in safety of kids. He lauded the group's efforts, "But we need to be looking at the condition of vegetation and sidewalks as we move forward."
One area of concern is the Subway intersection at Fifth Street and Grand Avenue, which is along the main routes to both school. At the trustee meeting, Roberts described the intersection as ambiguous and an area of concern. While grant money can't be spent on infrastructure, the coalition is looking into a re-design of the intersection.
Roberts is also creating a brochure and map showing the preferred routes to school, and working to create school incentive programs, which will be managed by student council members. One example is a punch ticket program, where kids receive a punch for every day they bike to school. When tickets are full, kids are entered into drawings for prizes, such as water bottles.
The balance of the grant will be spent on safety brochures. Grants were awarded beginning in 2014, and the grant funding period ends in December.
Three candidates are hoping to bring an end to the Republican-dominated Delta County Board of County Commissioners. Two are Democrats who call themselves men of ideas; the third is an independent candidate who says he's frustrated by the "status quo."