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DL looks to create "safe Routes to School'

Do you allow your children to walk or ride their bikes to school each morning? Or do you drive them there every morning, and pick them up every night?

If you fall into the latter category, then you're not alone. Nationwide, fewer than 15 percent of children in grades K-8 currently walk or bike to school, and nearly 50 percent of school-aged children are regularly driven to and from school by their parents, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Coinciding with the declining number of children walking and biking to school is an increase in childhood obesity and Type II diabetes.

Concerned about these statistics, the Detroit Lakes School District is exploring a partnership with the City of Detroit Lakes and Becker County to determine potential areas for improvement, under a new grant program called Safe Routes to School.

The program, which was established under the Federal Surface Transportation Act, is providing communities with the opportunity to improve conditions for bicycling and walking to and from school.

The program was discussed during an informal quarterly meeting of city, county, school and Chamber of Commerce officials held last week at the DL School Administration Center.

School officials Brad Green and Ted Heisserer made the presentation to the group. As outlined in their presentation, a total of $1.3 million is being made available to Minnesota schools for infrastructure improvements such as bike racks, additional sidewalks and signage.

"Basically, they want to make biking or walking to school safer and more popular for kids," Heisserer said.

Detroit Lakes would be eligible for up to $175,000 in funding under the program; grant proposals are due in late August.

"We've tentatively identified a list of areas we'd like to explore (for improvements)," Green said at the meeting.

Some of those areas would include:

-- Installing new sidewalks on Oak Grove Avenue to improve pedestrian access to the Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center, which houses the school district's Area Learning Center and Targeted Services programs. The new sidewalk would run between the DL Fire Hall on Main Street and the DLCCC.

-- Installing a new sidewalk on Richwood Road between the Seventh Day Adventist Church and the Detroit Lakes Boys & Girls Club, which offers after-school programming.

Currently, there is no bus access to the Boys & Girls Club. The nearest bus access is at the Adventist church, Green said (in a later interview), but because there is no sidewalk there, the Boys & Girls Club has been using its vans to pick up students from Roosevelt Elementary and the Middle School (students at Rossman who go to the club ride in a school bus from Rossman to Roosevelt in the afternoon).

-- Installing new sidewalks on Forest Avenue, leading up to Rossman School, and on Central Avenue east of Roosevelt School.

There is a non-infrastructure component to the grant program as well, Heisserer noted. An additional $250,000 has been made available statewide for non-infrastructure projects such as developing Safe Route plans, safety enforcement (such as School Patrols), and programs to promote biking or walking to and from school.

Plans for the program are still quite tentative, Green noted. Also, because the proposed sidewalk improvements would be on city or county roads, the school would need the cooperation of city and county officials to obtain funding for that part of the project.

"If all agencies involved agree on the project, then we'll pursue this," Green said.

Other items discussed at the Jan. 9 joint meeting included strategic planning for the upcoming Highway 10 improvement project; a proposed biking/hiking path from Park Rapids to Moorhead; and proposals for transportation funding, property tax relief, a statewide smoking ban and an extended school year -- all of which may be considered by the State Legislature in the 2007 session.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

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