EVERETT — For Kate Wirth, walking her two youngest children to Jefferson Elementary School used to require a little momentum and a lot of courage.
A steep street without sidewalks loomed just around the corner from their house in the Eastmont neighborhood of unincorporated south Everett. Wirth would gather speed to push daughter Morgan’s wheelchair up the hill, as son Kyle scampered alongside them. The family often moved to a rutted, grassy shoulder to wait out passing cars. Sometimes, they had no choice but to stay in the street.
“Going up this hill right here was so dangerous for us,” Wirth said.
“It was hard for us to get out of the road because that terrain was so rough.”
The journey has been much easier since classes started back up in September. Along with the rest of the community, Wirth, her fourth-grade daughter and second-grade son now enjoy new sidewalks on their four-block trek to school.
The county completed pedestrian-safety improvements near Jefferson Elementary and a dozen other schools this year through a program called Safe Kids, Improved Pathways. For the past two years, the program — known as SKIP for short — has set aside money from the county roads levy to make better walking routes to schools in unincorporated areas.
“The goal of this sidewalk project was that when students walk, they get to where the school crossing guards are,” said Doug McCormick, who manages SKIP and other county public works programs.
The 17 completed projects finished this year include laying new sidewalks, widening road shoulders and raising crosswalks. Crews expect to wrap up the installation of nine flashing traffic beacons early next month.
The SKIP program was initiated in 2013 with an inventory of walking routes within a mile radius of elementary schools in unincorporated areas.
The work over the past two years has added more than four and a half miles of safer walking routes, county officials report. Data show that more than 1,500 students use those routes to reach school. Another goal of the program has been creating better pick-up and drop-off sites along bus routes.
Wirth, whose daughter has spina bifida and other medical conditions, got in touch with the county’s Public Works Department about two and a half years ago. Engineers already had been eyeing the area around Jefferson Elementary for SKIP projects. Wirth’s input added incentive.
The family watched with delight as roadwork took shape along Cadet Way in June. As the project progressed, Wirth would tell Morgan, “‘They’re almost done with your sidewalk.’”
Crews also eased the slope of the hill near their house. On the other side of the school, they built better shoulders along Burley Drive.
“It gives us more options and alleviates the stress of wondering how safe it is to walk to school with my kids,” Wirth said.
The county has coordinated the work with eight school districts.
Other major SKIP projects this year targeted routes to Cathcart Elementary in the Snohomish School District, Oak Heights Elementary in the Edmonds School District and Fernwood Elementary in the Northshore School District.
Money for the work comes from property taxes collected in unincorporated areas. This year’s budget was $1.2 million for both construction and design work. That amount would increase to $1.5 million in the county’s proposed 2016 budget. With that money, engineers hope to take on work at 10 different locations.
“We really want to hear from citizens so we know that we’re targeting our money in the best way that we can,” McCormick said.
The county isn’t alone in taking on pedestrian safety near schools. Cities are overseeing projects as well.
State grants helped Everett complete improvements near Horizon Elementary in 2013, Everett public works spokeswoman Marla Carter said. The city received federal dollars for safety upgrades near Hawthorne Elementary in 2012, but continues to work on acquiring right of way for that project.
In Edmonds, grants are helping to pay for a sidewalk project underway on 238th Street SW, near Sherwood Elementary and the old Woodway High School, Edmonds public works and utilities director Phil Williams said. The city expects to begin work next year to build sidewalks near Madrona School, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade.
To learn more about Snohomish County’s Safe Kids, Improved Pathways program, visit www.snohomishcountywa.gov/SKIP.
To suggest a pedestrian-safety improvement on the way to a local elementary school, contact county public works deputy director Owen Carter at 425-388-6460 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call the transportation office for their local school district.