Tuesday, November 21, 2023 by Kali Bramble
With 425 projects at over 100 schools under its belt, Austin’s Transportation and Public Works Department is moving forward with plans to improve pedestrian and bike routes to elementary and middle schools throughout the city.
Safe Routes to School Program Manager Coleen Gentles stopped by City Council’s Mobility Committee meeting last week for a brief update on the ongoing infrastructure upgrades. Gentles says these enhancements can transform students’ existing commutes while encouraging more families to choose alternatives to driving.
“We are a partnership with local school districts, and we look at the safety concerns brought up on routes to and from school,” Gentles said. “Infrastructure improvements include everything from sidewalks to curb ramps and shared use paths, bicycle facilities and trails.”
While the city has overseen teams of crossing guards and outreach specialists since the early ’90s, concrete upgrades to school routes kicked off largely thanks to the influx of funding brought by 2016 and 2020 mobility bonds. In 2016, $27.5 million was allocated to “high priority” infrastructure projects across Austin’s 10 Council districts, with an additional $20 million in 2020. $1 million of that sum is reserved specifically for projects around charter schools, which staffers say will target historically underfunded areas.
The Safe Routes to School Infrastructure Report, published in 2019 following two years of research, identified 4,662 recommended projects totaling an estimated $825 million, though Gentles says that price tag has increased with inflation and rising material costs. To date, the team has completed around 425, and is on track to spend its remaining budget by 2028.
“Projects are ranked from very high to very low priority in our report, and right now we’re really focusing on high and very high priority,” said Gentles, referring to a scoring system based on demand, safety data, equity and cost-benefit analysis. “We also focus on projects that benefit more than one school, so if an absent sidewalk will benefit three elementary schools and one middle school, that will rank higher in terms of priority for funding.”
Recently completed projects include a paved trail connecting Peggotty Place, Abbey Glen Lane and Shropshire Boulevard to District 1’s Copperfield Elementary School. The quarter-mile length of trail, which ranges between 12 feet and 15 feet in width, provides a safer and shorter route for students who would otherwise be forced to traverse highly trafficked corridors like Yager Lane.
Progress is also underway at District 2’s Palm Elementary School, where construction of new crossings and bus stops along Salt Springs Drive began in November. The project is paid for in part by Capital Metro’s Quarter Cent Fund program. A second phase adding bike lanes between William Cannon Drive and Thaxton Road will begin next year.
The Safe Routes team also continues to host a number of outreach events, including programs on National Walk to School Day in October and National Bike to School Day in May, which resumed last year after a brief pandemic-related hiatus. Schools can also opt in to initiatives like the Bike on Wednesday Walk on Wednesday, or BOW WOW program, a monthlong contest in which participating students can win prizes like bicycles or pedometers via raffle entry.
Those curious about upcoming projects in their area can check out the Safe Routes Infrastructure map tool on the city’s website.
Photo by Nipponeselover, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
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