By Drew M. Bailey, Community Reporter
Northborough – Students of Marion E. Zeh Elementary School are on the move. In an effort to promote health and environmental consciousness amongst the student body, the school has held “Walk and Bike to School” days once a month since June 2010.
These events were started as part of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), “Safe Routes to School” (SRTS) program. In Massachusetts, the program reaches 25 percent of students, with nearly 350 elementary and middle schools in 116 communities participating. The MassDOT website describes the program as an attempt to “reduce congestion, air pollution and traffic conflicts near participating schools, while increasing the health and mobility of school-aged children.”
In March of 2011 the school received an award for innovation from the MassDOT for its Walk and Bike to School Days for the 2010-2011 school year. In addition, it was recently awarded a MassDOT grant for the improvement of town infrastructure on routes used by children on their way to the school.
The first Walk and Bike to School event of the 2011-2012 school year took place Sept. 16. Students showed up en masse; 137 attendees – 44 percent of the school's total population – made their commute without the aid of cars or buses. According to Zeh Elementary School Principal Susan Whitten, the monthly events have remained popular, attended by a “core group of students,” as well as parents and siblings. Whitten said that police have always been present at the events, keeping an eye at crossings and intersections. Most participants live within a mile of the school, although a few dedicated students make the trip from farther away.
The SRTS grant was not the original goal of the program, Whitten said. Walk and Bike to School days started as a simple effort to “get kids walking,” but it has since expanded, thanks to the interest of students, and support from parents and town officials.
Aside from the public safety contributions made by the Northborough Police Department, the town has provided aid in a number of ways. Town Planner Kathy Joubert assisted with the production of the original grant application, and now the school is working alongside town administrators, planners, engineers and the Board of Health to assess the infrastructure needs of the area surrounding the school. This review process will examine a one-mile radius to identify where students are coming from, what routes they are taking, and what areas require improvement.
The grant will eventually be used to repair sidewalks and roads, to install traffic signals and crosswalks, and to remove trees and brush in an effort to improve lines of sight along busy roads. A few specific areas of concern have already been identified by the school; these include the intersection of Winter and Whitney streets and areas along Howard Street that lack complete sidewalks on one or both sides of the street.
If everything goes as planned, the grant should be approved this summer, after which planning for the specific infrastructure improvements will begin. Whitten said that she does not expect ground to be broken until the spring or summer of 2013. The SRTS improvements may be supported by mitigation money from local development projects and may also be combined with other town projects.
The total amount of the grant has not yet been set, as it is dependent on the plan currently under development by the school and town. Whitten estimated that it would fall in the $400,000 to $600,000 range.