Safe Routes initiative on hold for Okemos schools

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On Sept. 15, 2023, when Tasha Warren’s son was crossing the road at the blinking crosswalk on Kinawa Drive, he was hit by a car. The driver had been driving their car on the center turn lane to cut through the line of parents in their cars waiting to pick up their children. Neither saw the other, thus causing the crash.

“I went as fast as I could and came upon a scene that no parent wants to come across,” she said. “All the cars parked everywhere; there are ambulances, firetrucks, police cars –– it was complete chaos –– and my son laying in the middle of the road.”

Warren’s son suffered head trauma and a broken ankle as a result of the crash.

The Ingham County Road Department had previously rejected a recommendation to install a traffic safety island on that crossing. Tim Potter, a local advocate of the Safe Routes to School initiative for Okemos Public Schools, said that if that island or similar barrier was constructed, similar crashes could potentially be prevented.

Safe Routes to School is a federal grant program that helps make it safe, convenient and fun for students to walk and bike to school. In Michigan, it is administered by the Michigan Fitness Foundation and the state Department of Transportation.

“We’re delivering the Safe Routes to School program with the goal to increase students of all abilities to be able to walk and bike safely; to go about making routes safer; to increase physical activity; and to reduce traffic and congestion around schools,” Colleen Synk, the senior operations and evaluations coordinator for SRTS at Michigan Fitness Foundation, said.

Potter first heard of the SRTS program when East Lansing Public Schools were exploring the grants, and became interested in helping Okemos schools apply for an application.

Eventually, he and a teacher at Kinawa Middle School began working to identify people in the school administration who would be interested in putting together an SRTS application, and also approach Michigan State University professors who assist in this process.

“It’s been about a year-and-a-half to two-year process since we started the Safe Routes to School application,” Potter said. “There’s been a lot of work done by the MSU team and community advocates such as myself, the teacher, some administrators and parents that are interested in encouraging young students to bike and walk.”

In 2022, several recommendations to improve the safety of walking routes to Chippewa and Kinawa middle schools were made by the team of MSU professors after completing a “walking audit” as part of the application process.

According to Potter, these need to be converted into preliminary design and construction engineering plans, which is required in order to submit the application. The plans are used by technical reviewers at the state Department of Transportation to determine the project’s eligibility and feasibility.

According to Max Fulkerson, the director of the SRTS program at Michigan Fitness Foundation, this initial requirement can be a hurdle for some communities applying for the grant.

“Some communities have the capacity already –– they have the staff or maybe have an existing contract with an engineering firm that they can put [this] work into,” Fulkerson said. “Other communities don’t necessarily have the personnel to do that and so they would have to pay for it –– and our funds cannot be used for that.”

Synk believes that this is the biggest hurdle for communities since the grant funds cannot be used for these design and construction engineering requirements.

“There is not often an identified source [to provide funding],” Synk said. “It’s definitely something we try and help support … but it’s really up to the local community to have that conversation and navigate how they want to handle that with all the various stakeholders involved.”

According to Potter, this preliminary requirement could cost “low six figures amount of money” for both schools. However, the Ingham County Road Department rejected the recommendations that had been made, meaning they now need to find a different way of raising these funds, Potter said.

“I can’t even think of one recommendation they would support; they were against everything,” he said. “That pretty much put the brakes on the whole process.”

However, Potter said that he will continue to advocate for the program and hopes funding can be raised to resume the application process.

Recently, Meridian Township has installed in-street pedestrian crosswalk signs on the crosswalk at Kinawa Drive. Rick Grillo, the township’s police chief, provided the following statement in an email:

“We have made several changes that I am told are in line with Safe Routes to Schools over the past few weeks. [The Meridian Township Police Department] has taken a three-pronged approach to traffic safety around the schools: education, enforcement, and engineering. … We have installed pedestrian crossing signs in the middle of the crosswalks to stop drivers from using the center turn lane as a through lane which is very dangerous for pedestrians when they are trying to cross. We also recently added a crossing guard in front of Chippewa Middle School during drop-off and pickup. We have had great relations with Superintendent John Hood and the new director of school security, Katie Diehl, and will continue to work hard to ensure the kids are safe.”

In-street pedestrian crossing signs on Kinawa Drive were installed recently. (Photo: Tim Potter)

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