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Project aims to create 'Safe Routes to Schools'

Wadena's elementary, middle/high school and college are all along busy Highway 29. The community received a federal grant to improve pedestrian safety within the corridor.

As a new term begins, local officials are aiming to improve pedestrian safety in Wadena's school zone.

The community received a quarter million dollar federal grant to create "Safe Routes to Schools" after a competitive application process through the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The project includes filling gaps in sidewalks to create contiguous paths for students to avoid traffic on busy Highway 29, improving crosswalk signage/painting and installing an interactive digital speed sign for eastbound traffic entering the city.

"It's a lot of little pieces," said County Engineer Ryan Odden, who is overseeing the project.

The proposal will also add bump outs to three 2nd Street Southwest intersections - at Aldrich, Bryant and Colfax - to reduce time pedestrians spend in the road.

"You're cutting the distance almost in half," Odden said.

In addition, countdown walk timers will be added to two traffic lights, at 2nd Street Southwest and Highway 10 and at Colfax and Highway 71.

These improvements will increase safety for not only Wadena-Deer Creek and M State students, but for the entire community, said Ann Pate, WDC school board member.

"I see this as a real critical need for the safety of everybody," she said. "We need to have safe routes for youth and the community as a whole."

Officials had hoped to wrap up the project this fall, but the lone bid came in at more than $100,000 over budget.

Odden said the goal is to rebid the project quickly and finish some components before winter. The grant money needs to be spent by the end of next June.

"We're going to put in some bidding alternatives to be able to hopefully get the project to be more in line with the estimated funding amounts," Odden said. "We have to make sure the project matches the funding amount - that's locked in ... We want to be able to put as many safety strategies in place as possible."

By extending the time frame into next year, he said, he hopes to solicit more competitive bids.

Wadena is the first community in the area to receive a Safe Routes to Schools grant.

"This was a very solid application," Odden said. "It's a very competitive funding source."

To demonstrate need for the project, Wadena County Public Health conducted surveys of parents and students.

"Findings indicate that many students do live close to school," the February 2013 application stated. "Speed, safety of intersections and crossings and traffic volumes were pointed out as problems by parents."

Jeff Randall, whose son was among two children hit by a van in front of the WDC Middle/High School in March, said he's "happy to hear that something's being done to keep the kids safe."

"It's about time," he said. "It took them long enough."