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Schools, city work on pedestrian routes

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Schools want students who live nearby to be able to walk or ride their bikes to class safely.

New road, trail and sidewalk projects are creating new opportunities for how students can get to school but also present new dangers as they try to cross or walk or bike along busy roads.

For example, Franklin plans to build walking trails to connect students to Webb and Needham elementary schools but also is sending more semis on a truck route on nearby Eastview Drive. In addition, vehicles wouldn’t have to stop as they enter a new roundabout at the nearby intersection, another potential hazard for young pedestrians.

The federal government encourages cities and towns to find ways to allow students to get exercise by walking or biking to school. The Safe Routes to Schools program can provide money for those types of projects, Johnson County Highway Department director Luke Mastin said. The program is being used to pay for projects that would connect students with both Center Grove and Franklin schools.

As those projects get planned, such as the improvements being considered on Eastview Drive in Franklin, safety is an important topic.

Work on Franklin’s truck route and a trail connecting with Needham and Webb schools are two or more years away. But city and school officials have started discussing safety concerns now.

Starting those discussions early allows schools to raise concerns and allows local government more time to develop solutions, such as where to place crosswalks or how to control traffic driving past the school, Franklin Community Schools director of operations Bill Doty said.

Governments need to consider the safety of pedestrians with any new intersection, sidewalk or trail, but especially around schools because children may not pay attention when crossing the street, Franklin Mayor Joe McGuinness said.

Students who live just down the road from Needham Elementary at Traditions Apartments or in the Jefferson Meadows subdivision south of King Street would have to walk or bike along busy Eastview Drive, the city’s truck route, Principal Kent Pettet said. So currently, no students walk or ride their bike to school, and the school isn’t encouraging it because it’s not safe, he said.

“We’re just not a school you can bike or walk to. They’ve done a wonderful job of trying to think of the different safety concerns; and when this is over, we will be able to encourage bike riding and walking to the school,” Pettet said.

The new trail being proposed along Eastview Drive would allow the school to encourage parents to let their kids walk or bike to school or do it with them, Pettet said. But the city and school also will need to work out safe places to cross streets, whether it’s at the roundabout planned for Upper Shelbyville Road or somewhere else, he said.

Safety talks with the city have explored multiple concerns. Although vehicles don’t have to come to a full stop when entering a roundabout, pedestrians only have to cross one lane at a time, which makes it safer than trying to get across a typical intersection, city engineer Travis Underhill said. A walker can cross the lane, wait in a concrete median that divides the lanes in and out of the roundabout, and then cross the second lane when its safe, he said.

But the city could build a more traditional crosswalk with flashing lights, warning signs, lower speed limits or even crossing guards away from the roundabout, McGuinness said.

Allowing the schools to have input in the project can bring a perspective that a city engineer might not have. For example, a trail from Brentridge Estates to Center Grove High School was rerouted to run along Morgantown Road after getting input from Center Grove school officials. The original plan had the path running through the middle school sports field, which school officials wanted to avoid. Officials also raised concerns about pedestrians walking through an area that can’t be seen by motorists.

With the new trail, the county also planned a new project to build a better crosswalk between the middle and high schools, so students could cross one lane of busy Stones Crossing Road at a time, Mastin said. Both of those projects, which are supposed to be built this summer, might not have been possible without the Safe Routes to School program.

“We were very fortunate to secure federal funding. I don’t know they’re projects we’d be able to take on with 100 percent local funds,” Mastin said.

Schools regularly consider how safe their campuses are, so they can start discussions with government officials as issues arise. For example, traffic on Smith Valley Road has long been an issue in front of Greenwood Community High School around dismissal time, so the school started conversations that led to the city getting a grant to put in a new stoplight there, Superintendent Kent DeKoninck said.

The school transportation director also has noted traffic congested around Westwood Elementary School in recent months, so the school could pursue Safe Routes to Schools grant money to help study and plan a project that could ease traffic there, he said.

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