Interstate 205 bypass endangers kids at school in Oak Grove
Bilquist Elementary School Principal Charles Foote worries every time the afternoon bell goes off and his students walk and bike home along Webster and Clackamas roads.
"It can be a little nerve-racking at times," Foote said. "It's just one of the symptoms of there being more and more traffic in our areas. The use of Webster Road as an arterial has really increased, and the number of people we see really speed through the school zone is concerning."
Foote hopes to soon worry a little less. After considerable study by Metro, Clackamas County and the Street Trust (a local nonprofit bicycle-advocacy organization), four flashing school speed-zone signals are envisioned to be installed near Bilquist.
Officials still are looking for funds to cover the installation costs, and the $25,000 that Clackamas County has budgeted annually for countywide construction on Safe Routes to School improvements is less than what would be needed for the flashing signs.
"The cost is turning out to be a little more than we anticipated," Clackamas County Senior Transportation Planner Scott Hoelscher said. "It's an important project, and there are definitely safety concerns there."
Clackamas County is in the middle of a three-year, approximately $125,000 Safe Routes planning grant from ODOT. In addition to Bilquist, the grant has funded the county working with stakeholders to create Safe Routes action plans for Oak Grove Elementary, Welches Elementary and Whitcomb Elementary's nearby Fuller Road. The action plans lack adequate funding for construction, however.
Clackamas County's Safe Routes program has been actively involved with studies and surveys to identify the areas where kids walk and bike to and from school. Foote wasn't surprised to hear that most of his students access the school via Clackamas and Webster roads.
"We've asked for other things like the radar signs and the flashing light over the crosswalk, but it always seems like we were down the priority list, and funding is always a challenge," Foote said. "There are probably other locations that have been more needy throughout the county."
Foote is a former principal at Clackamas Elementary School, a 1948 building that was slated for closure in 2012, in part because it had become sandwiched between busy thoroughfares like Interstate 205 (constructed in 1975) and 82nd Drive.
"What we've noticed is Webster Road has become a bypass for congestion on the freeway, just like 82nd Drive," Foote said.
Although they have some added danger, kids walking or biking to school score major health benefits and have much lower rates of diabetes, studies show. Over the past 20 years, the rate of children 19 and under who have been killed while walking has decreased. But recent years have seen a 13 percent increase in the death rate for 12-19 year olds.
Foote is grateful to Clackamas County Sheriff's Deputy Jodi Westerman, who regularly patrols around Bilquist as children arrive at school in the mornings, and go home in the afternoons.
Foote, now 54, remembers when he was in elementary school during the 1970s on the East Coast, where he would participate in safety patrol. Wearing his orange belt and badge, he even attended a national safety-patrol convention in Washington, D.C., taking the train there with other students.
Richard Large is the custodian and longtime crossing-guard program manager at Bilquist Elementary School. Fifth-graders compete to volunteer in the program and get a celebratory picnic at Oaks Park at the end of the year.
In 1961 the Oregon Legislature gave school districts statutory authority to operate school traffic patrols. While some local schools have given this task to parents, Foote says fifth-graders are mature enough to handle the crossing-guard duty safely.
"We've had cars that have stopped at the last second, but we always train kids to make eye contact and make sure the car is slowing before heading in the crosswalk," Foote said.
If there's more funding available, Foote would like some kind of flashing signal at the crosswalks next. Bilquist's drop-off and parent loading zones are challenging because they put a lot of traffic right on Webster Road, and if he had more funding for capital improvements, he would ask for a redesign of the driveways.
Hoelscher encourages the public to attend an upcoming meeting to learn about what the county is doing from a Safe Routes to School standpoint. He said input is being sought for program options for allocating the funding from HB2017, which set aside $20 million for Safe Routes to School infrastructure.
"It's, hopefully, the start of a collaborative working group, and to hear from districts about what they need to start a Safe Routes to School program," Hoelscher said.
A countywide meeting to discuss implementing Safe Routes to School programs runs from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 20, at the Clackamas County Development Services Buidling, Room 115, first-floor auditorium, 150 Beavercreek Road, Oregon City. Learn more at clackamas.us/engineering/srts.html.