Grants promise to give Hernando County kids safer routes to school

Donna Bohn, with sons Nicholas, 10, and Jacob, 2, gave up walking beside Powell Road to Chocachatti Elementary School. 

TONY MARRERO | Times

Donna Bohn, with sons Nicholas, 10, and Jacob, 2, gave up walking beside Powell Road to Chocachatti Elementary School. 

BROOKSVILLE — For Donna Bohn and her two sons, the quarter-mile stretch of sandy shoulder along Powell Road may as well be 10 miles.

Bohn would love to walk 10-year-old Nicholas to Chocachatti Elementary School from their home in Springwood Estates while pushing 2-year-old Jacob in a stroller, but there is no sidewalk along Powell to connect to the existing paved path in front of the school.

The rutted swale on the south side of Powell is sugar sand and clumpy grass when dry and mucky after rain. Traffic zooms by on the narrow, two-lane road and parents waiting to pick up children in the afternoon wind up pulling off onto the grass, blocking the way. A cross and cluster of flowers — a memorial for Nature Coast Technical High School student Scott Avery, who was killed while riding his bike there — stands as a testament to the danger.

The Bohns made the trek of roughly a mile and a half from their home to the school about a dozen times, then decided not to risk it anymore.

"You feel like you're taking your life into your hands," Bohn said.

There are other residents in nearby developments eager for better access to the schools, Bohn said. She has helped spearhead a petition effort that garnered about 700 signatures.

"People want it, and they definitely see a need," said Rhonda Bowers, a dance teacher at Chocachatti who lives in the nearby Deerfield community and helped Bohn with the effort.

Now the respective county and school officials are teaming up to tap federal dollars for that project and, officials hope, plenty more like it.

The Safe Routes to School program, created in 2005, funnels grant money through state transportation departments to build sidewalks, bike lanes and other enhancements near schools. The program has provided about $612 million — a little more than $29 million of that to Florida — for infrastructure and for educational programs aimed at encouraging kids to pedal or walk to school, the Safe Routes Web site says.

Hernando officials are applying for a grant totaling $315,000 to build a three-quarter mile stretch of sidewalk along the south side of Powell Road from Spring Park Way to the existing sidewalk in front of Chocachatti. The money would also pay for about 1,600 feet of sidewalk along the west side of California Street from Powell south to the Nature Coast High entrance.

"It's a school complex and you've got no sidewalks that lead up to the school," said Steve Diez, a county planner and the bicycle/pedestrian coordinator. "It's ridiculous."

In Hernando, the need for sidewalks always outpaces the funds available to pay for them. The Hernando Metropolitan Planning Organization gets roughly $250,000 annually from the state for bicycle- and pedestrian-related projects. Safe Routes has great potential to pay for those most critical for schools, Diez said.

"To find another pot of money to do the same work, if not more, that's always a good deal," he said.

As part of the grant application, the county and school district must form a Safe Routes committee to identify and prioritize local projects. The group will likely include a county engineer and school transportation director as well as principals, teachers, parents and students.

"The parents know the conditions better than anyone else," said Amber Wheeler, the school district's growth and planning manager. "They (can say), 'I would allow my child to walk if there was a sidewalk here or a crosswalk there.' We can rank those so we can address them one by one."

The committee is more than just a requirement for the grant, said MPO coordinator Dennis Dix. The county has its list of sidewalk priorities but the school district has to weigh in on the projects that would most benefit students, and both bureaucracies have to work as a team to make them happen, Dix said.

"It's kind of a new day," Dix said. "We're very pleased we've got the synergism going to make schools safer to access."

The deadline for the grant application is April 30. Wheeler will ask the School Board at its workshop Tuesday for the go-ahead to form the committee.

Her presentation to the board notes that more students walking or biking to school means healthier kids. It also means fewer general fund dollars spent because the district pays about $1.2 million each year to bus students who live within 2 miles of school. The state does not reimburse districts for those costs.

Hernando officials already know the benefit of Safe Routes. The program is paying $464,373 to build a mile-long sidewalk and streetlights on the west side of California from Powell Road to just north of Sandusky Street. That's the same section of road where 13-year-old Kaitlyn Harper was struck and killed while walking to a school bus stop in 2008. The grant was approved before the committee requirement was added.

While federal money pays, so does patience on the local level.

Officials had expected work to begin by now on the California Street project but the funding is taking longer than expected to arrive, Diez said. Construction probably won't start before this fall.

"It's very frustrating, but it's the process," he said. "It's federal dollars, but it comes through a lot of hoops."

If the money comes through for the Powell Road sidewalk, construction wouldn't begin before summer of 2011.

The Bohns say they're excited the process is at least moving now, though Nicholas acknowledged there's a time for everything — including walks to school

"It's better in the warm weather."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Grants promise to give Hernando County kids safer routes to school 01/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 7:31pm]

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