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DOT changes procedure amid Bryant Elementary sidewalk dispute

WESTCHASE — The controversy over a half-mile-long sidewalk in front of Bryant Elementary School has changed the way the state spends $1 million a year on school safety projects.

As proposed, the $286,000 sidewalk would be built on Nine Eagles Drive between Westwood Lakes Boulevard and Chase Grove Drive.

A final public hearing about building the sidewalk is set for the Nov. 4 Board of County Commission meeting.

Regardless of whether the sidewalk is built, residents' opposition to the project has changed the way the Florida Department of Transportation does business with local governments.

The federal Safe Routes to School program gives the state agency about $1 million annually to pay for sidewalks, bike racks, crosswalks and other safety infrastructure improvements.

In the past, the agency sought general public input on such projects.

"We always tried to get everybody involved," said David Skrelunas, district safety program manager for the DOT.

Now the agency also wants a school committee to sign off on such projects.

"We just take it a step further after what happened with this project," Skrelunas said. "The program's not that old, and we are learning things along the way."

In Westchase, parents initially asked the county to install the sidewalk for safety.

In response, officials spent $72,000 in state funds planning and designing the project.

Then parents learned that the sidewalk could make some kids ineligible for courtesy busing by the school district's guidelines.

That led some parents to change their minds and begin fighting the project.

Courtesy busing is offered to students who live within 2 miles of a school and face hazardous conditions to get there. Hazardous conditions include lack of sidewalks or routes that would require students to cross a major road.

Three courtesy buses serve Bryant, each with 50 to 75 students, at a total cost of $22,000 a year.

At the last public meeting in July, Lisa Yost, a general director for schools in northwest Hillsborough, assured 50 residents that there were no plans to reduce bus service as a result of the sidewalk. But she did not rule out the possibility of adjustments in the future.

This week, school district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said "nothing has changed on our part."

Still, the debate has caused the project to drag on, as county officials tried to decide whether to move forward or scrap the sidewalk altogether. If the sidewalk is not built, the $72,000 already spent would have to be paid back to the state.

Rich Reidy, County Commissioner Ken Hagan's aide, said the board is not leaning either way on whether to build the sidewalk. Commissioners just would like to settle the matter.

"This issue is one of these issues that most certainly proves that all politics are local," Reidy said. "The state amended their review process to require additional public input. In the long run there's most certainly some upside."

The prospect that money would be spent designing a project that might not be built has led the DOT to make another change to its process for Safe Routes to School projects.

Before, these projects could have one source of money for the design and another for construction. In Bryant's case, the state paid for the design of the Bryant sidewalk, and the construction would be paid with the federal Safe Routes to School grant.

In the future, such projects will be paid for entirely with federal money.

The result: The new guidelines will set aside one year for design and a second for construction. That means some projects that might have taken one year will now take two.

Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or jleone@sptimes.com.

This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: Lisa Yost is a general director for schools in northwest Hillsborough. Her job title was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

.Fast facts

If you go

The County Commission will vote on whether to build a sidewalk near Bryant Elementary at 9 a.m. Thursday at County Center, 601 E Kennedy Blvd.

DOT changes procedure amid Bryant Elementary sidewalk dispute 10/28/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 5:30pm]
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