Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: The good news for pedestrians and school kids in proposed city budget

Lacey police added a digital speed indicator beside the blinking school zone slowing light near the crosswalk between Chinook Middle School and North Thurston High School after a teen was struck in that crosswalk while walking to the high school. Tacoma’s new budget includes money to add flashing lights at some school zones.
Lacey police added a digital speed indicator beside the blinking school zone slowing light near the crosswalk between Chinook Middle School and North Thurston High School after a teen was struck in that crosswalk while walking to the high school. Tacoma’s new budget includes money to add flashing lights at some school zones. sbloom@theolympian.com

Tacoma’s effort to increase bike and pedestrian safety — including the eventual launch of a full-blown Safe Routes to School program — may be on the verge of taking off its training wheels.

That’s the hope, anyway, of those encouraged by the inclusion of $2 million in pedestrian safety funds in City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s proposed budget for 2017-2018.

This money, assuming it survives, would put $500,000 into sidewalk repair, $500,000 to essentially dip a toe in what hopefully will become a much larger Safe Routes to School program, and a cool $1 million to install flashing beacons on speed limit signs in 14 Tacoma school zones.

“It says to me that the public works director and city manager are listening to the council and the community very clearly,” City Councilman Ryan Mello says of the proposed funding. “We hear regularly that pedestrian and bike safety is very important.”

It says to me that the public works director and city manager are listening to the council and the community very clearly. We hear regularly that pedestrian and bike safety is very important.

City Councilman Ryan Mello

The need for improved pedestrian safety is a common sentiment, especially among those whose children regularly walk or bike to school in Tacoma.

According to numbers crunched last year by the Puyallup Watershed Initiative, 222 kids ages 18 and younger were hit by cars in Tacoma while walking or bicycling from 2010 to 2014. That’s an accident every eight days.

And the rate of these accidents was significantly higher in areas of Tacoma with the highest percentages of people of color and poor families — raising an obvious issue of equity.

With numbers like that, any progress is welcome.

According to Kurtis Kingsolver, Tacoma’s director of public works, the flashing beacons on school zone speed limit signs will be installed at 10 elementary schools — Franklin, DeLong, Downing, Lowell, Pt. Defiance, Stanley, Birney, Jenny Reed and Roosevelt; two middle schools — Truman and Jason Lee; and two high schools — Mt. Tahoma and Lincoln.

Perhaps even more important, however, is the momentum created by dedicating $500,000 to Safe Routes to School.

As I’ve previously reported, the movement to implement a Safe Routes to School program has been percolating for some time. Such programs have been instituted in cities across the country, and involve physical improvements to crosswalks, sidewalks and school zones, as well as enforcement and targeted educational efforts for drivers and pedestrians. Earlier this year, the city allocated some $65,000 to hire a consultant to help guide the work.

And, more recently, city leaders and a group of community partners, including representatives from Metro Parks and Tacoma Public Schools, began meeting in hopes of hashing out the details. Largely, this means identifying where the trouble spots are and what resources already exist.

This effort also means connecting with the community, as will happen at a Nov. 16 meeting at Lincoln High School and via an online survey.

Kingsolver says a study that will help direct where the $500,000 will be spent is due out next April. Mello and Puyallup Watershed Initiative’s Liz Kaster say it will likely target a handful of schools on Tacoma’s East Side and South End.

All of this represents a positive move. But it’s also important to be realistic about exactly what it represents: a baby step. The full implementation of a Safe Routes to School program will cost far more than this initial investment, likely including grants and new funding sources such as revenue from school zone speed enforcement cameras (a conversation that promises to be contentious).

Still, there’s reason to be encouraged by the message Broadnax’s budget proposal sends.

“We’re really excited to see that they’re thinking about (Safe Routes to School) now,” Kaster tells me.

“This is going to be a really critical first step.”

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