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Blazing safe routes to Bainbridge schools

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Non-motorized committee works to improve student trail access.

Getting to school as quick and safely as possible is never as simple as how the crow flies.

For many students, walking or biking to school means skirting the edges of narrow roads, cutting through private property and traversing roughly worn paths and muddy hillsides.

The city’s Non-Motorized Transportation Advisory Committee (NMTAC) has been working to identify the numerous clandestine routes used by students in order to make them more accessible and safe.

It’s part of the city’s non-motorized plan and the federally funded Safe Routes to School program.

The program, administered through the state’s department of transportation, encourages the development of road and trail improvements that not only make it safe to walk or bike to school, but encourage kids to get out and exercise.

NMTAC has applied for numerous Safe Routes to School grants and recently went out for a grant relating to a proposed trail along the length of Sportsman Club Road. That trail would connect Woodward Middle School to High School Road.

“There are a number of children that do after-school programs and travel down Sportsmans to Bethany Lutheran church,” said John Grinter a trails advocate and member of NMTAC. “When you look at the road, it has a half-decent shoulder, but some places lend themselves to separated pathways.”

NMTAC members and local residents feel trail projects along Sportsman Club Road will create a safer corridor for students who use pedal power or their feet to get to school.

“In the grand scheme it’s a huge priority,” Woodward Principal Mary Alice O’Neill said. “We’re encouraging kids to conserve and walk and bike to school, currently there are some paths that aren’t safe to ride your bike especially in the dark, we’re hopeful that we’ll see more opportunities for kids to get to school safe without using cars.”

Laurie Rice, a mother of three school-age children agreed.

“My kids will walk to school when it’s not raining. I’d love it if they could walk to school or ride their bikes more, but not on a 40-mile-per-hour road,” Rice said of Sportsman Club Road.

The proposed trail route along the road is what NMTAC chairman Don Willot describes as a “spine route.” Eventually, NMTAC envisions numerous feeder trails will connect to the Sportsman Club spine route, increasing non-motorized access for students and the community.

It is one of many school-oriented projects the committee has worked on this year. Their efforts, aided by city planners, helped to implement traffic-slowing and pedestrian-friendly revisions around Wilkes and Blakely schools.

As recent as Monday, a blinking light system went into effect at Blakely which allows school officials to alert drivers that reduced school-zone speeds are in effect.

“It points out when the committee is working well as it is now, we can work with that energy and find that partnership to build and create an island network so people of all ages and all modes of transportation can get where they need to go,” Grinter said.

But it is not an easy task to find the right routes in the island’s core where the majority of island schools are located. There are difficulties with the distances, numerous roads, rough terrain and conflicting property interests.

However, last week, the NMTAC and the Open Space Committee forged into the trail project, agreeing in principle to the purchase of a piece of property, owned by Chaffy Homes Inc., in the West Commodore development off High School Road.

The triangle lot, barely a sliver of land that falls down a steep hillside, is adjacent to a trail on private property that many students use to gain access to Sportsman Club from the Commodore development.

In essence, the purchase would create one of the feeder trails that will eventually connect to the Sportsman Club spine trail.

According to NMTAC chair Don Willot, building the feeder trails before the core trail is created is all part of the NMTAC process.

“We work on the philosophy of doing things in segments and having an armload of plans ready to go,” Willot said.

Rice, who lives in the Commodore area, has been an advocate for the purchase of the lot and for the creation of a new trail connecting to Sportsman Club Road.

“I think if it was a safe trail we’d get a lot more use on it,” Rice said of the existing pathway. “I’m so glad (NMTAC) had the foresight to put this puzzle piece together, and there are so many pieces.”

Portions of the trail will eventually go through city property, homeowner common grounds and private property.

It’s a delicate balancing act that often has NMTAC members going door-to-door asking neighbors about trail easements.

“You can’t force a homeowner to give you an easement,” Grinter said. “It’s really about finding willing partners.”

Linda Poh, the president of the Commodore West Division 2 Homeowners Association, is also backing the purchase of the Chaffey Homes property citing a safe walking route for all community members.

“A lot of retired people like to walk the sidewalks and trails,” Poh said. “This will create a walking loop separated from the road.”

Once the land is purchased, if approved by the city council, then it becomes a diplomatic effort to decide who will build and maintain the trails. Whether that will be the priority of the park district, the city, the school district or a combination of the three.

“It’s not easy to draw a line between transportation and recreation,” said Grinter on the difficulties of deciding who eventually foots to bill. “So who builds and maintains still needs to be worked out, but that’s the next step.”

Despite the difficulties of working on projects with so many different facets, Willot said the necessity of building safe routes to schools will bring the pieces together eventually.

“We’re all concerned with everyone getting around, no matter what the mode of transportation,” Willot said. “This project is a collaboration and it’s a safe route to school. It’s great to emphasize collaboration in everything you do.”

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