Program to give students safer ways to walk, bike to school completes one of 24 projects in five years

A pedestrian prepares to cross the entrance to Lake Ashley Park on Dorchester Road. There is a sidewalk on one side of the entrance and a dirt path on the other. (Brad Nettles/postandcourier.com) 12/21/12 Buy this photo

Five years ago, Hunley Park Elementary parents and educators walked the streets surrounding the school to identify dangerous spots.

Lowcountry schools grants

The following lists the Lowcountry schools that have been promised money through the Safe Routes to School program. The listed amounts do not include non-infrastructure funds that initially went to schools and since have been used to establish a statewide Resource Center.

2007 grant awards

Alston Middle in Dorchester 2: $174,000; Project status: Bids for construction will go out spring 2013.



College Park Elementary and College Park Middle in Berkeley County: $360,000 (one project); Project status: State resolving right-of-way issues.



Hunley Park Elementary in Charleston County: $168,000; Project status: Bids for construction will go out spring 2013.



Stono Park Elementary in Charleston County: $175,000; Project status: Bids for construction will go out spring 2013.

2008 grant awards

Beech Hill Elementary in Dorchester 2: $180,000; Project status: On hold.



Boulder Bluff Elementary in Berkeley: $180,000; Project status: State resolving right-of-way issues.



Stiles Point Elementary in Charleston: $180,000; Project status: Bids for construction will go out spring 2013.



Source: S.C. Department of Transportation

They found places needing sidewalks and older sidewalks needing repair. They saw areas where installing fencing and speed bumps would make it safer for students to walk and bike to the school.

Facts and numbers

Congress passed federal legislation establishing the Safe Routes to School program, and it was signed into law in August 2005.

Federal funds have been promised to states based on student enrollment, and no state has been apportioned less than $1 million per year.

More than 13,666 schools have benefited or will benefit from funding through the federal Safe Routes to School program.

The total amount of federal funding committed to states is $1.1 billion, and 75 percent of that has been awarded by states to specific projects.

States have received a total of 12,066 applications for Safe Routes to School money, and 47 percent of those projects have been funded.

South Carolina has been allocated $15.5 million for the program since 2005, and it has promised about $5 million of that to school-based projects.

National Center for Safe Routes to School

Although the state committed to spending $168,000 to make that happen, none of those changes have been made.

“(This) is the epitome of government screw-up,” said Principal Michael Ard. “I don’t know any other way to say it.”

The school, located on Michigan Avenue off Dorchester Road in North Charleston, was promised the money as part of the federal Safe Routes to School program, which is intended to improve the health and well-being of children.

State officials committed about $5 million in 2007 and 2008 to 24 school sites across the state. Since then, only one of those projects has been completed.

The state has a total of $15.5 million available to it for these safety improvements for children, but it lags the country in using that money. The state has awarded only 33 percent of the funds, the third-lowest rate in the country. The national average is 75 percent, according to the fall 2012 federal tracking report for the program.

This isn’t the first time South Carolina’s Safe Routes to School program deficiencies have been highlighted. The Post and Courier looked into the issue one year ago, and the newspaper found no projects had been completed and less than $75,000 had been spent on physical infrastructure improvements.

Last week, a state Department of Transportation official said a combination of factors has contributed to the 23 projects being unfinished. Issues have ranged from site-specific problems to a change in responsibility for the overall program’s administration. In South Carolina, the Safe Routes to School program is run by the state Department of Transportation.

“We’ve made progress,” said Tony Sheppard, traffic engineering director for the SCDOT. “Are we where we wanted to be? Probably not. But we have made progress.”

Making progress?
The purpose of the state’s Safe Routes to School program is to encourage students to walk and bike to school, and that means improving both physical infrastructure and information.

For information, the state created a resource center that’s available to any school, and it has educational materials such as how to organize a walk-to-school day.

For infrastructure, that means building safer routes, mostly with new sidewalks.

In five years, the state has finished only one of its 24 projects designed to do that, Wrenn Elementary and Wrenn Middle, which are on the same campus in Piedmont.

Of the 23 remaining projects, eight are ready for construction to begin, and the state will solicit bids this spring for contractors to do the work, Sheppard said. Those include four Lowcountry schools, and he expects the work to be finished in 2013.

Another nine projects are in the right-of-way phase, which means design plans have been created, and state workers are trying to either acquire property necessary for the projects or obtain needed permissions to use certain properties. Three Lowcountry schools are in this phase.

Five projects are in the design phase, and one project, Beech Hill Elementary in Dorchester 2, is on hold with an uncertain timeline.

Sheppard said he hoped to advance projects in the design and right-of-way phases so they are ready for construction to begin in 2013.

The state hasn’t accepted new project proposals from schools because it wanted to first finish the bulk of its existing projects, Sheppard said. He hoped to accept new applications next year.

The national Safe Routes to School program doesn’t track how much money states actually have spent, nor did it have an average for time taken to complete projects.

South Carolina’s Safe Routes to School program once was managed by schools, but that shifted to the transportation department in 2009. The change created some delay in moving projects forward, and the federal development process generally is lengthy, Sheppard said.

In addition, all but one of the projects ready for construction bidding have been through the right-of-way phase, which can be time-consuming, he said.

For example, the state sometimes has to get permission from every property owner on a certain street to install a sidewalk. In other cases, utility lines and drainage systems conflict with plans, and state officials have to figure out how to work around those.

“Each project has unique challenges,” Sheppard said. “They are similar type projects but unique constraints.”

Empty promises
Although Sheppard expected to see more South Carolina projects completed in 2013, that promise carried little weight with local educators and parents.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Ard said.

Byron White lives near Stiles Point Elementary on Mikell Drive on James Island, and he remembers when his daughter was a first-grader. That’s when he started advocating for safer paths to the school, and he was on the school’s committee that applied for a Safe Routes to School grant. The school was promised $180,000 in 2008.

The sidewalk that was supposed to be built on Godber Street still doesn’t exist, and his daughter has moved on to seventh grade.

“Why is South Carolina different from other states?” White said. “Why isn’t the safety of our children a higher priority? They say they care, but they’ve done nothing.”

Steve Burger, principal of Stiles Point Elementary, said no one asks him for updates on the project’s progress. Parents who were involved have moved on as their children have gotten older, and the same was true among a handful of other tri-county school principals interviewed.

“My new crop of parents don’t have a clue,” he said.

Godber Street borders the school, and it’s “choked with cars and has no sidewalk and nowhere for kids to walk,” Burger said.

Burger said the time and paperwork involved in this project has meant that less money will be available to actually build the sidewalk. That will cause it be shorter than planned, he said.

“It makes me very sad,” he said. He hears from parent drivers concerned with students walking in the street and from student walkers worried about busy streets.

“People don’t realize how fast they’re going,” he said. “Sometimes cars go by and I fear for my life.”

Accountability
When the newspaper reported on this issue last year, the Lowcountry board representing tri-county government and transportation organizations passed a resolution demanding an explanation from the state transportation department on why it hadn’t finished any local Safe Routes to School projects.

The Charleston Area Transportation Study also asked what specifically the state needed to ensure these efforts could move forward. It doesn’t appear that CHATS has maintained a close eye on this issue since then.

Larry Hargett, former chairman of CHATS and chairman of Dorchester County Council, said CHATS has had a number of issues on its plate, such as Interstate 526, and those have taken priority. That said, he understands the need for these safety improvements to happen, and “we need to move them.”

Summerville Mayor Bill Collins also serves on the CHATS board, and he said his impression has been these Safe Routes to School projects haven’t been a high priority with the state, given its other needs.

Collins said he’s learned that some government processes are “amazingly slow,” and he’s not sure what can be done to change that. Still, he said he would bring it up at the next CHATS meeting, and he hoped to spark movement.

“I think we need to keep pursuing it,” he said. “It’s got to be done.”

Until then, principals such as Rene Harris at Beech Hill Elementary in Dorchester 2 remain skeptical but hopeful. Her school, located in Summerville off S.C. Highway 61, won a $180,000 grant in 2008 for sidewalks in a nearby neighborhood, but there has been no decision on how that money will be spent.

With the Newtown, Conn., shootings and the extra attention to safety, she hoped the sense of urgency to protect schools could be enough to make the project happen more quickly.

“I’m a pretty positive person, and I’m very hopeful, but at some point, it’s like the boy who cried wolf,” Harris said. “I’m waiting with hope, but it’s reserved. … I know it will benefit our kids.”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or at 843-937-5546.

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