Soldotna receives funds for 'Safe Routes'

Bicycle riders participate in a group ride Saturday through Soldotna during bike safety day. The event was an opportunity for youth and adults to learn about safe riding and to share a fun ride through town.

Soldotna elementary and middle school students recently were given surveys for their parents to fill out. The parents were asked to write the safety concerns they had about allowing their children to bike or walk to school. 

Soldotna Police Department Chief John Lucking has reviewed some of those surveys, and the parents' majority concern: moose.

Addressing wildlife interaction will prove difficult, but grant monies are flowing toward safer to-and-from travel options for Soldotna's young students.

The Alaska Safe Routes to School Program was initiated locally by SPD. Phase two of the program is under way. This includes forming a group to identify possible improvement projects.

The state awarded Soldotna $16,700 for phase one and $68,300 for phase two of the program, which is 100 percent federally funded and requires no match of funds.

Lucking began searching for programs to improve bike and pedestrian safety after Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche and city council member Brenda Hartman voiced an interest in maintaining "an exemplary record of bike and pedestrian safety."

"However, a lot of our routes are on heavily traveled roadways," Micciche said.

In July 2005, Congress passed federal legislation that established a national Safe Routes to School program. The program has dedicated a total of $612 million from 2005 to 2009, according to the Department of Transportation.

Cities around Alaska are applying for and receiving grant money allocated through the program; a national effort supported by local, state and federal governments to improve accessibility and safety around schools. It also encourages healthy lifestyles for children.

The first phase consisted of non-infrastructure projects, such as purchasing reflective shoelaces and bicycles spokes, as well as printing and distributing the safety surveys. The program's partners are establishing a curriculum to teach within Soldotna's schools, which will end phase one, said Lucking.

In early April, an additional $2,700 was granted for the purchase and distribution of bike helmets to local kids. Jane Fellman, Peninsula Safe Kids Coordinator and recipient of Soldotna's service to youth award, is determining how to give out the helmets.

The Trails, Bike and Pedestrian Safety Committee was chosen as the program's ad hoc brain trust. The committee will work with a task force headed by a contracted facilitator to further look into issues that discourage kids from walking or biking to school.

Projects can be incorporated into the program if they are within two miles of a school. All schools within the city limits of Soldotna, excluding high schools, were included in the city's grant application. And Cook Inlet Academy, with grades K-12, was added in a revision.

Sidewalks, calming of traffic through added stoplights and pedestrian crossing improvements are among the possible projects.

"I think the committee will dream big," Lucking said. "Some big ideas will move forward, but it doesn't mean we'll be able to get everything we ask for."

However, he remains optimistic, as Fairbanks, one of several Alaska grantees, acquired upwards of $400,000 for the second phase of their own program.

Mayor Micciche said he believes Soldotna is extremely well fitted for the Safe Routes to School Program.

"Primarily, because of the distance we're allowed to consider as part of (STRS) the entire city is included, if you think about the proximity of the schools to one another," he said.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.

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