Officials discuss safety around junior high school

Benny Westcott

The Nov. 8 Sweet Home School District School Board meeting featured discussion of implementing a plan to make traveling to and from school safer for Sweet Home Junior High School students.

Last November, the city of Sweet Home was awarded Safe Routes to School (SRTS) planning assistance from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). Through this program, the city, school district and ODOT have collaborated on an SRTS plan to identify street improvements near the junior high.

The SRTS plan will recommend opportunities for education and engagement to promote safe walking and other means of transportation, such as bike and pedestrian safety education. Identified projects will be funded at the state level and available for local implementation.

“The purpose of the plan is to make it safer and more accessible for students and families to walk, bike and take transit,” Jill Roszel, senior designer at the Portland-based Alta Planning + Design, told the school board.

Other purposes of the SRTS plan include preparing the community to collaborate around its initiatives, identify projects for ODOT SRTS program construction and education grants and align with other initiatives, such as transportation system, bike/pedestrian and school district strategic planning.

Roszel said the project team has been meeting remotely to gather information specific to Sweet Home Junior High School and better understand its existing conditions. The next step would include community outreach.

Sweet Home resident Donna Short, who was part of a committee that formed an action plan to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety for the junior high in 2014, performed a “walk audit,” where she and others observed student drop-offs.

“The money and time and energy that we put into the junior high for the remodel has been awesome,” Short said at the meeting. “My husband and I had done an observation prior to the project a couple of years ago, and when we did the walk audit this time, we were like ‘Wow. This is so much better.’ We still have challenges around Mountain View Road. But the project really made a huge difference in how safe it is in the immediate vicinity.”

Short views the infrastructure on Mountain View Road as the biggest pedestrian safety issue left to address, particularly the fact that no sidewalks line either side of the road from Ames Creek to the school. But she noted that the remodel “made drop-off and pick up much safer, particularly because the bus drop-off driveway was made to be totally separate from the parent drop off location.”

Short was also part of a committee that formed an action plan in 2015 to improve pedestrian safety around Oak Heights Elementary School. The group successfully obtained a grant to install a rapid flashing beacon for pedestrians on Highway 228. Other improvements from that action plan included a “walking school bus” for Oak Heights students and a bike safety program for fifth graders, both of which were put into practice prior to the pandemic.

As far as future improvements around the junior high, Roszel said a “facility inventory” will help identify and prioritize safety needs within a mile of the school, after which a team will draft a SRTS plan with projects identified. Once that plan is created, the public will be asked to comment and incorporate necessary changes so the plan can be finalized and provide local leaders with the information necessary to apply for and receive funding for the SRTS plan, Roszel said.

“There is money available for this,” she said. “It’s exciting. We just need to make sure that we are doing all of the due diligence in the planning process so that we are identifying the projects that would be best for the junior high.”

An interactive online map is available online at odotsrts.altaplanning.cloud. A brief survey solicits better insight into survey participants’ goals and priorities, and users can provide their email addresses to remain informed. The map features key locations and landmarks, and users can add routes or points they find to be areas of concern.

“This is a really important tool to allow everyone to provide information in their own words and on their own time,” Roszel said of the map.

In addition, she said that a virtual community meeting will be scheduled in the future to discuss how students are currently traveling to the junior high and critical needs concerning SRTS. Meeting attendees will also be able to talk about feedback from community members, parents or staff.

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