By Sue Botos
During the annual Bike to School Challenge, the number of students riding their bicycles to class soars. Now, officials hope to make cycling, as well as walking to school, a year-round habit through the Safe Routes to School program.
At the June school board committee of the whole session, Samuel Bobko of the engineering firm Hatch Mott MacDonald explained the program, which he said encourages safety and the creation of healthy habits among children. Grants for participation are currently funded 80 percent by the federal Department of Transportation. The remaining 20 percent is picked up by the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT).
Giving a PowerPoint presentation to the board, Bobko stated that the components of the program can be thought of as “the 5 E’s”: engineering (infrastructure such as signage and efficient parking lot use), education (helmet use, bike care, road rules), encouragement (Bike to School Challenge), enforcement (crossing guards and police) and evaluation. He added that funds can cover up to five schools, public or private, housing kindergarten through eighth-grade students. Bobko noted that the program is well-suited to more walkable communities such as Rocky River and Fairview Park, because any physical improvements must be made within two miles of a school.
Bobko said that the first step in the process is the creation of a “school travel plan” that involves the gathering of data by a committee composed of city and school officials, law enforcement personnel, health care workers, engineers and residents. The information is then formulated into a list of recommendations. “This sets the framework. It’s almost like a master plan,” Bobko explained.
The plan, plus the appropriate documents, are then turned in to the state, which awards grants in two areas: infrastructure, such as making curbs near schools more bike-friendly, and noninfrastructure, which would include educational programs.
“This is good timing because the previous round of grants have just been awarded,” Bobko told the board.
Pointing out that $20 million in grants were secured by communities throughout the state, Bobko added, “I don’t want to say it’s easy, but if you follow the procedure, you have a good chance.” For, example, he said that of 70 applicants for Safe Routes to School grants last season, 30 were awarded grants.
Fairview Park has received a pair of Safe Routes grants, however, the awards have yet to be publicized, according to officials, as final plans are in the works with ODOT to establish a timeline for design construction.
Matt Hrubey, development administrator for Fairview Park and “neighboring community reference” for the proposed Rocky River Safe Routes program, spoke highly of the initiative. “There are direct and indirect benefits,” Hrubey told West Life. “This (directly) provides resources and a framework to address the issue of children being less active. Indirectly it benefits the community through collaboration.”
Further supporting his comments about the desirability of applying for funding during the 2015 grant period (January to March), Bobko told the school board of several “unknowns” beginning in 2016. He said that NOACA (the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency) may take over for ODOT, supplying 20 percent of the grant dollars. He pointed out that this could be beneficial because NOACA is more concerned with local issues and is “closer to the communities.”
Bobko continued that the total of federal and local funding available is set at $4 million for next year, but “after 2016, we don’t know what is going to happen,” he stated.
Both Superintendent Michael Shoaf and Sam Gifford, executive director of human resources and support services, agreed that the next step in the process would be a dialogue with city officials. “This is a fantastic program and each community (now participating) has a success story,” Gifford said, adding, “It’s not often that a 100 percent grant (is received). With the unknowns in 2016, this is a good time to take advantage of this.”
Hrubey echoed these thoughts, stating that Chagrin Falls, which has had the program for five years has “achieved the ideal and ingrained Safe Routes to School into the community.” He added, “I wish Rocky River the best of luck. Dr. Shoaf can contact me anytime.”