A Blaine council majority wasn’t convinced recently about the safety need for proposed new sidewalks near Westwood Intermediate and Middle schools.
City leaders sided with a group of residents opposed to the project, voting 5-2 last week against a design, bid and build process for sidewalk construction on 91st Avenue and Jackson Street, even though a $202,426 Safe Routes To School (SRTS) federal grant would have been used to totally fund the project.
Councilmembers Mike Bourke, Russ Herbst, Wes Hovland, Dick Swanson and Dave Clark voted no; Mayor Tom Ryan and Councilmember Katherine Kolb yes during a March 15 city council roll call vote.
The program’s primary goal is to reverse a 30-year decline in the numbers of children walking to school.
Blaine staff had previously submitted three funding request applications to the pedestrian access program without success. Areas around Westwood Intermediate School and Westwood Middle School, 701 91st Ave. N.E., were identified by city staff as program candidates.
SRTS projects are funded at 100 percent with no match required from local units of government.
Last summer, city staff received notice from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) the city had secured a grant to build the 6 foot sidewalk.
City Engineer Jean Keel said an open house to explain the project to residents of the 91st Avenue/Jackson Street neighborhood was held on Oct. 10, 2011.
A number of residents attended Feb. 2 council workshop when the project was discussed. A group of almost 30 returned to attend the March 15 meeting.
Diane Shallue, 9040 Jackson St. N.E., told city leaders she supported the project, even though it would run by her property.
Shallue said in the morning, she walks in the street to access nearby trails.
“I’m scared to walk there. I’m very much in favor of this project, even though it would greatly impact our yard.”
Tom Larson, Westwood Intermediate School principal, also spoke in favor of the project, mainly for the safety and well-being of Westwood’s 1,800 students.
“We have a number of students who choose not to walk, and their parents drop them off because of the road,” Larson said. “It’s really unsafe with more than 200 staff members driving in and 36 buses [coming] every morning and afternoon. If this project is approved tonight, we would have 200 students able to walk.”
John Gamer, 732 91st Ave N.E., strongly suggested that the city council terminate the SRTS project.
Gamer said intersection control was a more important issue to address, and he also opposed the sidewalk project because another 4 to 8 feet would be needed to create boulevard space in addition to the sidewalk.
Charles George, 9103 Van Buren, a 28-year area resident, said his daughters attended Westwood and didn’t use a sidewalk when they traveled to the school.
“We don’t see that many kids walking back and forth to school,” he said. George was also concerned about drainage issues. “There’s no place for water to go.”
Denise LaValle, 746 91st Ave. N.E., said the project would require removal of two large pine trees in front of her house. She also worried about sidewalk ice.
LaValle presented a 19-name petition listing residents who were opposed to the sidewalk project.
One of the petition residents, Ron Clark, 733 91st Ave N.E., a 35-year Blaine resident, directly questioned the SRTS application.
Clark said other areas in Blaine were better choices for the federal grant money.
“This school used to have a safety patrol, but they don’t anymore,” Clark said. “I’m not aware of any traffic fatalities. I doubt if you can improve upon zero.”
Councilmember Dick Swanson wanted city staff to conduct a public hearing before Blaine applied for the STRS grant. “It would have helped a lot,” he said.
Councilmember Russ Herbst agreed with Swanson.
“These people have lived there forever,” Herbst said, referring to the residents. “It doesn’t look like there’s a safety problem to me.”
Councilmember Katherine Kolb defended an earlier pro-sidewalk petition drive conducted by Westwood sixth-grader Lexi Loegering that included 84 names.
“They need to know somebody is speaking for them,” she said. “I’m going to support this. We need to send a message to kids [about government participation].”
Councilmember Wes Hovland said he had originally supported using the city’s use of SRTS grant.
However, during the March 15 meeting, Hovland passed during a role call vote before voting no.
During discussion, Hovland said there had been a huge increase in the amount of traffic around schools, but he wanted a smaller sidewalk considered.
After reviewing a map of the SRTS project area and doing a quick count of nearby homes, Councilmember Mike Bourke said he could not envision a large number of children using the proposed sidewalk.
Mayor Tom Ryan agreed with Kolb regarding the council sending the wrong message to students.
“To sit here and say this is want we won’t do shows we don’t care,” Ryan said. “We’re lucky nobody has been killed.” Herbst then asked for the roll call vote.
During the vote, Councilmember Dave Clark said he didn’t see enough data to support the project.
“When I look at this project, I don’t know if I see that it has enough city-wide importance to override the neighborhood,” he said.
Clark voted no when the grant was first brought before council. “I didn’t like the process,” he said.
Tim Hennagir is at firstname.lastname@example.org