Grants fund demonstration project to slow traffic
Persistence and patience have led to crosswalk alterations that parents at Gideon Pond Elementary School hope will make it safer for their kids to walk or bike to school.
Road markings were painted and vertical poles installed last week at two crossings on East 130th Street in Burnsville, where the school is located.
After spearheading the project for more than two years, parent Shannon Wohlman was on hand last Wednesday to see the some of the first vehicles traverse the crosswalks, which were retrofitted to wake drivers up and slow them down.
“I went up to just observe and it was just awesome to watch while the cars actually slowed down and paid more attention,” said Wohlman, who will have a prekindergartener, a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old at Gideon Pond this year. “I’m really excited to see what the school year is going to bring, because then we will know for sure what it’s going to look like.”
The crosswalk projects at Oakland Drive, near the school’s main entrance, and Portland Avenue were funded by Safe Routes to School grants awarded to Gideon Pond by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
They’re low-cost demonstration projects used to test potential design solutions to improve walking and biking access. Construction to make the crosswalk features permanent could follow in future years.
Wohlman was vice president of the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization when she started advocating for safety improvements on East 130th Street. The street carries 3,050 vehicle trips a day between Nicollet Avenue and Parkwood Drive — “a decent amount of traffic,” said City Engineer Jen Desrude, citing a 2018 count. A high number of vehicles entering and exiting the parking lot to drop off and pick up students is also a concern.
Wohlman said she has worried about crossing safety since her 9-year-old started kindergarten.
“These concerns have probably been around much longer than I’m even aware of,” she said. “It was just myself and a few other parents that decided to do this project, and here we are.”
Red paint bordered by white paint at the corners of the crosswalks simulate curb extensions, which narrow the road and reduce the crossing distance, Desrude said. The simulated curb extensions are further delineated by white poles, which are flexible and won’t damage vehicles on contact.
“When vehicles go through an area where the road narrows, the driver’s inclination is to slow down,” Desrude said. “A wider street, the driver feels a little bit more free to go faster. 130th is a pretty wide street. It’s got shoulders. When you pinch the road in those spots where kids will be present, the idea is to bring attention to the driver and then they would slow down.”
The poles will be removed before the end of October for snowplowing season, but the paint markings will remain, Desrude said. The city approved the crosswalk alterations and did the marking and installation.
The city will collect data to determine if the retrofits are reducing speeds, she said. The school will seek parent opinion in a survey.
“It will take probably a month before we see some really valid results as (drivers) get used to seeing it,” Wohlman said. “Because, of course, once you’re used to something, your driving habits change.”
PTO parents started the lengthy process of getting the improvements by appealing to the city. Discussions with engineer Walter Ehresmann led to an application for state grant funding. Wohlman also credited former Gideon Pond Principal Chris Bellmont.
“He helped orchestrate the connections I needed to make after having some conversations with Walter,” Wohlman said.
An initial research grant paid for a consultant, Alta Planning + Design, to assemble data on traffic and risk factors, convene community meetings and study solutions, according to Wohlman.
“We tried to include as many stakeholders as we could find,” she said, noting that information on the project went out in English, Spanish and Somali.
One idea that emerged was a costly system of traffic lights, which didn’t fly with the city, Wohlman said.
“It basically wasn’t an appropriate intervention based on what that road has in terms of traffic volume,” she said.
The next step was narrowing options and landing a Safe Routes to School demonstration grant, which funded another consultant, SEH.
More meetings followed, but the process was delayed when COVID-19 hit, scuttling hopes of implementing the improvements in spring 2020, Wohlman said.
If the curb extensions are made permanent, it would make the most sense for the city to do the work when East 130th Street comes up on the schedule for street improvements, which isn’t in the near future, Desrude said.
Otherwise, backers could apply for more Safe Routes to School grant funds, she said.
Curb extensions at both crosswalks could cost roughly $80,000, Desrude said.
Wohlman said the PTO has some money put away from fundraising in 2019 and 2020 that might fund a bit of the work.
“We don’t want to wait many years,” she said.
John Gessner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 952-846-2031.