Saltillo, Cumby receive grants designed to get kids walking, bicycling to school

By BRUCE ALSOBROOK, News-Telegram Managing Editor

April 16, 2008 - Here's a novel idea: How about letting kids ride their bicycles and walk to school?

In an age when laptops are replacing readers and some youngsters spend more time pushing buttons on a PlayStation than the pedals on a Schwinn, it might sound a bit quaint and old fashioned to suggest they get to class under their own power.

But the state of Texas is betting some $25 million that they can get more kids to get some exercise on the way to school, and do it safer than before, and two school districts in Hopkins County are among the campuses trying out this newfangled concept.

Both the Cumby and Saltillo independent school districts last year were approved for $10,000 grants from the Texas Department of Transportation to develop a "Safe Routes to Schools" program and plan. Grants have also been approved for schools in Delta County, Greenville and Paris, and dozens of others across the state.

The Texas Transportation Commission in September approved $24.7 million to fund 244 projects in more than 65 Texas communities. Most of the grants, like the $10,000 to Cumby and Saltillo, are for developing plans and programs. A handful, however, pay for such improvements as sidewalks, bike lanes and crosswalks.

KSA Engineers, a Longview firm, was approved in a resolution passed Monday by Hopkins County Commissioners Court as the engineering firm that will consult on the program with Saltillo ISD.

"The purpose is come up with safer routes to school so that students can ride bikes and walk to school more and get more exercise," said Lanny Buck, representing KSA.

And according to Hopkins County Judge Cletis Millsap, the programs have the potential to generate massive grants.

"The initial grant is for about $10,000 to do the study, but if the plan is approved, it could be worth as much as $750,000," Millsap said this week.

Many of the construction grants approved by the state have gone to urban areas, like Dallas and El Paso, but smaller districts aren't left out in the cold. Linden-Kildare Elementary School in Cass County, for example, received a $322,500 infrastructure work grant in September to build sidewalks in the last round of funding.

The Safe Routes to Schools programs are also intended to make walking and bicycling to school more appealing to children, including those with disabilities. Think of it as another way to combat rising levels of obesity in American school-age children.

But the program can have other impacts, as well, such as reducing traffic congestion, fuel consumption and air pollution around elementary and middle schools, the targets of the grant program.

With the initial $10,000 grants, school districts are tasked with coming up with ideas to combat barriers to walking and biking to school. They are asked to come up with at least one idea from each of the "the 5 E's" -- engineering, education, enforcement, encouragement and evaluation -- to reach those goals.

School districts, for example, could decide to build bicycle lanes on existing roads, or create off-road walking and bike paths. Money could be used to build sidewalks, install new signal lights or improve street lighting. "Traffic calming measures" designed to slow down vehicles around schools, such as speed bumps, raised crosswalks or narrower lanes, could also be considered.

Perhaps best of all, at least if you're a school budget writer, is the programs ultimately cost the schools nothing. There is no grant match, local or otherwise, required. The program is a 100 percent federally funded one, requiring only that grant recipients front the money for the cost of the projects. The grants reimburse them in full.

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