Each morning I pass the new school zone at Mendenhall Loop Road and Stephen Richards Drive in Juneau. It is good to see our Alaska Department of Transportation respond to community concerns about the dangerous intersection so quickly by adding flashing lights and a lower speed limit while children are present. As a parent whose children walk home from school most days, this is an extra source of comfort. As a cyclist, I am glad to see the response to needed safety problems. As a teacher, we need to make sure there are safe routes for children to walk and bike to and from school.
Unfortunately the route to school is not always safe. One of my 10-year-old daughter's classmates was killed on a bicycle on his way to school last October. It was not easy to assist my daughter in dealing with a trauma, made more real because her father is an avid bicyclist. I applaud the efforts of Glacier Valley School Parent Group and the Department of Transportation to take steps to make traveling to school safer for the 80 percent of Glacier Valley students who walk or bike to school.
Our school district is proposing to reduce school busing over the next year. As both an educator and a parent, I would rather see my school district's money spent on educational programs once students get inside the classroom than on unnecessary expenses getting children to the classroom. Many students do live within walking and biking range of school, but many roads do not have adequate facilities for students walking to school. There is more than one intersection that needs attention to increase the safety of school children
Glacier Valley and other schools across Alaska could make even more progress if the next federal transportation bill supports a Safe Routes to School program. These programs, already in Texas, California and other states, look at student transportation routes around school and seek to make them safer for walking and bicycling, while increasing traffic enforcement and education children on traffic safety.
The U.S. House of Representatives is considering a bill that would devote $250 million to a national Safe Routes to School program administered through the state Department of Transportation. If the program is fully funded, Alaska could get an estimated $1.2 million each year to create such safe routes. The Senate's version includes only one-third the funding necessary for the full program. Both houses of Congress may take action on the bill as early as February. Our state Legislature already reduced funding for bus transportation expenses by school districts last year, with no proposals to change such policy.
Growing up in the Midwest, school buses were for field trips and activities. I walked the four blocks to elementary school and then the half mile to our high school activity fields for summer programs was an enjoyable bike ride. Sidewalks were expected in our neighborhood. My parents, busy with a family of eight, did not have time to drive me to activities, yet that was not a problem. I could walk in the neighborhood and bike safely wherever I needed to go.
Nowadays many of our children do not have such walks. Traffic is heavy and sidewalks are few. We have school buses; however, as money tightens busing costs may begin to cut into educational needs. Nationally, busing costs have already risen from $394 per student in 1990-91 to $521 per student in 2000. As an educator, I'd rather see those dollars go to student education. As Alaska city school districts struggle to save money by cutting buses, we need to think carefully about our priorities.
We are discussing roads that connect communities and resources. At the same time we should be encouraging effective transportation within our communities that encourages all users to travel safely. Safe Routes to School encourages children to get to school without increasing vehicular traffic around already congested areas.
A lifelong cyclist and father of four, I enthusiastically encourage my children to exercise and have the freedom and responsibility for traveling to and from activities on their own. It isn't always easy. Any transportation form has risks involved. I am grateful for the facilities of Juneau, especially the multi-use paths near my home in the Valley, as well as the attentive care most Juneau motorists exercise. I am hopeful that encouraging safe routes to schools can be a benefit to our community by reducing traffic around schools and providing more opportunities for healthy exercise.
Dave Ringle is a teacher at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School and officer of the Juneau Freewheelers cycling club.
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