Town addresses safer routes to school for kids

Posted: December 14, 2012

The Winchester Star

BERRYVILLE — Four years in the making, Berryville has a plan to make it safer for children to walk and ride bikes to school.

If approved by the Virginia Department of Transportation, the town’s Safe Routes to School plan could make it eligible for a federal grant program to build sidewalks and educate students to make that trip safer.

The goal, said Town Planner Christy Dunkle, is to ensure “safe and efficient pedestrian and bicycle access to Johnson-Williams Middle School.”

A team of seven from education, law enforcement, engineering and the general public have been evaluating the area around the school to see how it can be improved to promote walking and biking.

The plan identifies three areas where the town would like to see infrastructure improvements.

Highest on the list is a new sidewalk on the south side of the middle school grounds on Swan Street.

The existing concrete walkway, which is more than 20 years old, is crumbling, Dunkle said, adding that the ground-level sidewalk has been used as a parking area for cars, contributing to its deterioration.

The team would also like to get a flashing sign for South Buckmarsh Street that would show the speed of approaching cars in an effort to keep motorists at or under the 25 mph speed limit.

The third item would be crosswalk markings on Buckmarsh at Crow and Main streets.

A cost estimate was only available for the crosswalk work, which Dunkle said could have a price tag of up to $20,000.

Approval of the plan by VDOT would also make the town eligible for grants for education and enforcement programs.

Police Chief Neal White said this would help the Berryville Police Department continue programs it offers each year in the elementary grades.

“We have a leg up on the education end of it,” White said.

Since 2005, McGruff the Crime Dog has visited to encourage children to be safe while walking to school.

The town also promotes a Walk to School day and asks parents to fill out a survey with any barriers they encounter on that walk.

Bike safety is another project for the town police.

White said the town has gotten grants to purchase helmets, which the police have distributed to children with bicycles. Now, it has a grant to purchase bicycle lights.

If a patrolman spots a youngster cycling without a light, at night, he doesn’t write a ticket. “We find a way to get him a light,” White said.

Teaching children the importance of using crosswalks should mean fewer accidents, White said, especially as children often teach their parents the importance of safety measures.

Seat belts are a case in point, he said. While older adults didn’t grow up with the habit, their children often remind them and serve as role models.

That’s important, he pointed out. “When a 150-pound person and a 3,500-pound car collide, who’s going to lose?”

One of the reasons the plan took so long to put together, Dunkle said, is the amount of information demanded by the program to be eligible for the funding.

But thanks to new software acquired by the Clarke County School system this year, the team was able to survey how many students lived close enough to the school to be able to walk or bike there.

The team found that 27 percent of the middle school students live within a mile and 42 percent within two miles of the school.

This information should help in the planning of future projects, White said.

“There are challenges,” Dunkle said, in an older town where streets were not laid out to cope with modern traffic.

While most of the residents of Hermitage subdivision can get to the middle school via secondary roads, students east of Buckmarsh Street have to cross that primary thoroughfare, which is U.S. 340.

“Its a concern,” Dunkle said, hence the desire for signs and crosswalks there.

If the town’s plan is accepted by VDOT, the next move would be to seek a grant from the federal program for the Swan Avenue sidewalk.

With that and other improvements, Berryville might see more middle school students walking to their classes with friends and neighbors.

They enjoy that social time, White said, and it could also help improve their health.

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com