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Grant will fund safer, better routes to Ellsworth schools

Forty years ago, half of all American children walked or biked to school every day.

Now, over half ride to school in private cars, and fewer than 15 percent of all school trips are made by walking or bicycling.

Ellsworth village and school officials hope to change local patterns of behavior by using a federal grant to build more sidewalks, better paths and safer street crossings.

The village and Ellsworth School District partnered to apply for and obtained a $196,220 grant in the first round of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Safe Routes To School (SRTS) program.

"We're trying to make it easy for people to walk and bike," summarized Steve Broton, principal of Ellsworth Middle School.

"For us to get this was huge," said Ellsworth Police Chief Greg Place. "Anytime we can increase safety and do anything to improve safety in the school area, it's a plus."

Place said, "The criteria was for schools and municipalities to work together to improve walk facilities in and around school areas or that would lead to school areas."

Although construction might not begin until next spring, this year's grant will be used to:

--Install 2,200 feet of sidewalk along Piety Street from St. Francis School south to the entrance to Ellsworth Middle School.

--Improve pedestrian crossings at two locations on Main Street and two on Piety.

--Blacktop about 2,000 feet of walking and biking paths on school property. This will involve laying asphalt on the pathway from the middle school to the high school, blacktopping a path north of the cemetery to connect the sidewalk along Piety to the school pathways, and blacktopping a connecting path to the sidewalk system on the west side of the high school.

--Install lighting along the Piety Street sidewalk and along the school pathways.

Place said the lack of sidewalks along Piety leads kids to bike or walk in the roadway.

"It's going to enhance it for the general public too," said Place, adding the new sidewalks will create convenient trails for recreational walking. He said, once the pathways are lighted, people will be more likely to use them in the evening.

"It's a full hard check. There's no soft match for us," said Place.

The Ellsworth Rotary Club gave $3,500 to pay an engineering firm to prepare the plans and submit the grant application. But now, said Place, the SRTS grant will pay the entire cost of Phase 1 work.

Officials hope Ellsworth's applications in the next two rounds of grants will also be successful.

Phase 2 would involve more sidewalk work on S. Piety Street and the middle school area. Phase 3 would be sidewalk work north of the school area toward Main Street.

Place said the Phase 2 application will be submitted in 2008 and the Phase 3 application in 2009.

Because Ellsworth's first grant application was accepted, there's a good chance subsequent applications will also be funded, said Place. "But," he added, "there are no guarantees."

Prescott and River Falls were also successful in obtaining SRTS grants this year. Statewide, Wisconsin will receive nearly $8 million through 2009 to fund projects making biking or walking to school a more appealing alternative.