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Safe Routes To School pilot project will end with statewide model for trail engineering

Getting to school on bike or on foot might get a little easier in the future for some Cottage Grove students, thanks to a project of Washington County.

The county has been selected to conduct a pilot program for the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School program. And Cottage Grove Elementary has been chosen as the site to benefit from the pilot.

The U.S. Congress passed legislation to establish the Safe Routes to School program with the intention of promoting biking and walking to school. Minnesota also created its own Safe Routes to School program, which is also funded regularly through state legislation.

“The goal is healthier and safer communities,” County Engineer Wayne Sandberg said. “In 1969, for instance, 48 percent of the children between the ages of 5-14 years walked or biked to school. In 2009 that number had dropped down to 13 percent, so kids are just not walking and biking to school, even when they can.”

The Safe Routes to School program aims to identify the barriers that prohibit kids from walking or biking to school. The program, he said, has four components -- education, encouragement, enforcement, and engineering. Where the plan falls short, he said, is in the engineering category.

“They’re doing a good job of covering the first three, but sometimes, often times, the engineering piece is not fleshed out in detail,” he said.

That’s where Washington County will come in. MnDOT has asked county staff for some assistance in improving the engineering and analysis process for Safe Routes to School.

“They reached out to Washington County because we have a reputation for excellent engineering capabilities and using those skills to solve difficult problems, so I think it’s an honor they’re reaching out to us first,” Sandberg said.

The county is being called upon to do a complete analysis of an existing plan within the county and find ways to enhance the the plan to include location-specific improvements.

In selecting a school, county staff looked for a school that already had a Safe Routes to School project in place, but one that could use more engineering analysis. MnDOT wanted a school located on a county highway, preferably one that has a high-speed zone nearby, since higher speed is one of the more challenging conditions faced by Safe Routes to School program planners. The county wanted to find a location where there were a significant number of students who could walk or bike to school, but had a barrier to getting to the school building.

“And it ought to be in a location where an enhanced plan could then turn into meaningful and funded improvements, meaning we could use this plan and put it to work in the foreseeable future,” Sandberg said.

Located along Hinton Avenue (aka County Road 13) and 65th Street (aka County Road 74), Cottage Grove Elementary has several neighborhoods within walking distance but no trails to connect those neighborhoods to the school, so it was chosen as the location to be studied.

Washington County will utilize a consultant to aid in the project, with MnDOT allocating up to $50,000 of federal funds to pay 100 percent of those consultant costs.

In turn, the state agency will take the best practices that come from the process and include those findings into the statewide model for Safe Routes to School planning.

“Planning is great, but we want to actually get some of these things built. The way to do that is to actually enhance these plans with a more detailed analysis,” Sandberg said.

The Washington County Board of Commissioners approved a contract between the county and MnDOT to use the $50,000 in funding for the project during the May 10 board meeting.

“I think it’s a great project and we’ll get some really great results out of it,” Commissioner Karla Bigham said.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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