Dave Mathew leads the program outlining the grant funding process for the Safe Routes to School Program on Thursday morning at the NPAC.
Dave Mathew leads the program outlining the grant funding process for the Safe Routes to School Program on Thursday morning at the NPAC.

BY KIRK DOUGAL

Times Bulletin Editor

kdougal@timesbulletin.com

Safety was the word of the day as the School Travel Plan team met to discuss their progress on the Safe Routes to School program.

When the new Van Wert City Middle School/High School complex was built on St. Rt. 118, it became much more difficult and dangerous for students to walk or ride their bicycles to school. This has contributed to more parents driving their children to school, leading to congestion and longer wait times.

"Contrary to what some people in the community say," said Van Wert City Schools superintendent Ken Amstutz, "I believe the city police have done a terrific job of directing the traffic flow and pattern at the schools." He went on to say that it takes only 17 minutes for students to leave the MS/HS complex when school is in session.

But that circumstance also mirrors a national trend as fewer students walk or ride bicycles to school every day. In 1969, 42% of all children made their way to school on their own but by 2001 that figure had dropped to 16%. The figure has now dropped to the point that between 20-25% of all morning traffic is made up of parents driving their children to school. As a possible linked result, this fall off in daily exercise also coincides with the rise of child obesity in the United States. This trend promises to continue as more and more school systems, which used to be located in smaller facilities in community centers, build large complexes on the edge of their towns.

Understanding that a serious need had arisen, a School Travel Plan (STP) team was formed. The members are Dave Mathew, Van Wert Co. Park District; Larry Webb, Van Wert Co. Park District; Jay Fleming, Van Wert City Safety Service Director; and Duane Reithman, NRCS Engineer. The fifth member was originally former Van Wert City Schools Superintendent Cathy Hoffman but she has since been replaced by the current superintendent, Ken Amstutz.

This group came together in the December of 2006 and by the spring of 2007 had filed an application with the Ohio Department of Transportation for funds to begin planning for a trail that would safely tie together the schools and parks of Van Wert city so that children could safely travel to and from their homes. Nationally, $612 million will have been let from 2005-2009 for both planning grants and infrastructure building projects. Ohio has also stepped to the forefront and set aside $1.2 million for planning and an additional $3.7 million for construction of approved plans.

When the applications were due a little over a year ago, ODOT was caught by surprise by the number of communities that went through the process, forcing them to ask for more information to better evaluate who would receive grant money. The Van Wert STP completed the extra and step and was notified just this winter that they were awarded $4000 plus the costs of studies and consultants to complete a planning stage. One interesting point is that Van Wert City Schools was only eligible for this grant because of the Middle School being built with the High School. Without both of them at the complex, Van Wert would not have received planning funds or been eligible for a construction grant.

The final step for the STP to complete involves input from the public regarding obstacles to students walking or biking to school. To this end, the STP team will be posting a short questionnaire on the Van Wert City Schools website to compile ideas from people within the district as well as gather information on the amount of usage that the trails would garner. This poll will be posted starting August 1 and will stay up until the middle of September. There will also be a link on www.timesbulletin.com to the questions.

The answers will be compiled and the group will then conduct a Walkability Study that will entail the use of students, parents and professionals to walk the possible construction trail. This portion of the planning will most likely take place the week of September 8-12. at that point, a new application for an infrastructure grant will be filed this fall.

The group pointed out that Van Wert would seem to have a leg up on other cities for funds because of its acceptance into the planning portion. However, a large number of participants in the questionnaire portion of the project would certainly increase the chances of being awarded more funds.

The project will take time and some of the choices might not be appealing to everyone living within the school district but but as Reithman said, "If there was an easy solution, it would already be solved."