Sidewalk shortage creates unsafe passage for students

EVERETT — Fog whited out the neighborhood Friday as Michelle Purcell accompanied two of her children, and a few of their pals, on the nearly mile-long trek to school.

The morning route to Seattle Hill Elementary involves bouncing from one side of the road to the other. Purcell guided a flock of 10- to 12-year-olds on a winding path to take advantage of sidewalks and road shoulders.

“Either you do a zig-zag thing or you pick a side” of the street, Purcell said.

Seattle Hill, southeast of Everett, shares a similar sidewalk shortage with 33 other elementary schools in unincorporated Snohomish County. Safety worries are particularly acute in neighborhoods — like the one surrounding Seattle Hill — where suburban development has overtaken a rural street grid.

Some help appears to be on the way for Seattle Hill, and soon after for other schools.

County road engineers recently increased their efforts to build sidewalks and widen shoulders near local schools. Before they start construction, they’re meeting with transportation officials from eight local school districts to identify where safer walkings areas can make the most impact given limited dollars.

“We’re looking at every elementary school in unincorporated Snohomish County,” county engineer Owen Carter said.

The undertaking is tied to County Executive John Lovick’s proposed 2014 budget. Lovick calls it the most-exciting project he’s worked on in more than 40 years of public service, most of it in police uniform.

“All you need to do is go to a PTA meeting,” he said. “They talk about a lot of things, but safety of their kids is the No. 1 thing they’ll discuss.”

The executive said it’s wrong to make young children walk to school along unsafe routes.

Improving the situation won’t be easy, or quick.

Within a mile of the elementary schools in the county’s unincorporated areas, there are a combined 430 miles of roadway without adequate sidewalks or shoulders, Carter said.

That’s particularly significant because students generally don’t have bus service if they live less than a mile from school.

“We have a big project ahead of us, but we’re enthusiastically ready to attack it,” Carter said.

Lovick’s budget calls for raising road taxes to start fixing the problem. A proposed 1 percent hike in the county roads levy would generate an extra $550,000 per year to improve walking routes near schools. That would cost the owner of a house assessed at $250,000 about $4.50 more per year in property tax.

The county also will look to supplement tax dollars with state and federal grants.

For now, four road engineers are looking at school pedestrian projects they can design in time for the 2014 construction season. They hope to prepare a list by spring.

Over the past few years, the county has worked on about a dozen pedestrian-improvement projects around schools near 128th Street SE, south of Everett. The county also recently filled in sidewalk gaps near Kokanee Elementary School in Maltby.

For the upcoming work, county engineers want to fill gaps in sidewalks or widen shoulders measuring less than four feet wide.

“Ultimately we would want to put sidewalks in, however that’s big money,” Carter said.

They’re likely to weigh several factors to decide which projects to do first: the number of children who walk the route; the speed limit and average daily number of vehicles on the adjacent roadway; and cost.

Small, but well-traveled sidewalk and shoulder gaps might be good targets to hit first, Carter said.

Seattle Hill Elementary Principal Paula Nelson said pedestrian safety for her students has been a topic of discussion since she started working at the school.

“This is my 12th year and this is one of the first things” people brought up, she said.

Of biggest concern is the lack of sidewalks on 51st Street SE, directly in front of the school.

For years, Nelson and parents have sought the county’s help, mostly without success.

The situation is on track to improve next year, at least somewhat.

Snohomish County plans to install more than 300 feet of new sidewalk along 51st Street, starting work after school lets out next year. The new sidewalk is planned to run north from the school entrance on the east side of 51st Street. The estimated cost is about $200,000.

“We’re going to wait until after school’s out so we don’t interfere with the children’s walking routes,” Carter said.

Until then, many parents will opt to take their children by car, or accompany them for a morning stroll. As Purcell, the Seattle Hill mother noted, “You don’t see a lot of kids showing up without a parent with them.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

To learn more …

•Check out Snohomish County’s “Safe Kids, Improved Pathway Program.” Go to the county’s main website, www.snoco.org, and search for “SKIP.”

Contact county engineer Owen Carter at 425-388-6460 or owen.carter@snoco.org.

Or talk to your local school district

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