Is there a way to open up walking and biking trails to connect the new Van Wert Junior High/High School complex with the rest of the city?

A new grant from the Ohio Department of Transporation's Safe Routes To School (SRTS) Program will help local officials find out the answer to that question. The Van Wert Park District has received funding to hire some professionals to study the situation.

Park District Chair Dave Matthew stated, "It's a non-infrastructure grant which will be used to consult with us as to possible and probable ways we could develop some trails or routes to the school so that students and adults could walk or bike safely."

The district applied over a year ago for the grant and was to have been notified last March about results, but matters got delayed. Mathew assumes that a high volume of applicants likely pushed back the grant awards. He said that the district had to submit more information last summer in relation to this program as well.

The effort to win the grant has joined Van Wert City Schools and the City of Van Wert with the park district. Safety-Service Director Jay Fleming has headed efforts from the city while Van Wert City Schools Superintendent Ken Amstutz has assumed the role that had begun with Cathy Hoffman early last year.

Not much is definite about the grant just yet. Mathew is estimating the money to be in the neighborhood of $20,000, but he has no firm information. "I'm waiting to hear from (ODOT District One Project Administrator) Kirk Slusher as to where to proceed from here," Mathew shared. "We're happy that we were awarded this and think it's a great opportunity for us to develop some pathways out there."

Statewide, more than $4 million will be used for the SRTS program. The dollars just awarded to Van Wert are for planning, not for building. The opportunity to apply for those dollars comes later. "I would like to think that since we received the non-infrastucture grant that when it is time to actually put something at ground level, we should be able to get something there too," Mathew said.

Ironically, it could be that having the new school facility so far removed from the rest of the city actually could have worked in favor of the park district's application. Mathew pointed out that had the new high school campus not included the middle school, the district would have been ineligible for this program. What the final plan will look like is still up in the air. "As we were brainstorming last year, we looked at aerial maps, but really we just don't know what they are going to recommend," admitted Mathew.

One idea is to tie in some of the existing elementary buildings with the new facility through trails or streets, like connecting Washington Elementary by some sort of trail through Smiley Park and some route out to the middle school/high school complex. Mathew said, "At this point we're just waiting to see what we are able to do." Also winning grant money in the SRTS program were schools in Hicksville, Arcadia, Antwerp, Pandora and Van Buren. The non-infrastructure grants will go to 87 communities in this first year of funding from ODOT. Another $2.6 million is being poured into 15 communities for actual construction projects, including pedestrian crossing signals, sidewalk completion, building pedestrian bridges and improving signage. In 1969, national statistics showed that half of all students walked or bicycled to school.

Today, fewer than 15 percent of all school trips are made on foot or by bike. Instead, more than half of all children arrive at school in private vehicles. With the SRTS program, the state hopes to push kids out of the cars and back onto healthier forms of transportation. The goal is to provide safe routes to school to eliminate the need for using cars. Mathew noted, "We can't ask kids to get out and walk or bike if we don't provide avenues for them to do that safely, so I think that's a major component of it too."