'If we build it, will they come?' Baxter considers Safe Route to School options
BAXTER — Should hundreds of thousands of dollars be spent for a Fairview trail to create a safer route to Baxter Elementary School or is waiting the better answer?
Baxter City Council members met in a workshop Wednesday night looking at funding options and partners and if a proposed trail would actually be used.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is accepting applications for the Safe Routes to School infrastructure grant program through Feb. 15.
The rub comes as the Safe Routes to School Steering Committee, which received federal funding for a feasibility study, identified a sidewalk project by Garfield Elementary as the project with the highest priority for this funding cycle.
Council member Todd Holman questioned if the city would be negatively affecting their partnership if the city pursued its own project when the group identified Garfield Elementary School as the project to support.
At issue in Baxter is Fairview Road, the frontage road just off Highway 210 that goes by Baxter Elementary School. The feasibility study noted Fairview, a road without shoulders or a sidewalk, has relatively high vehicle traffic and frequent use by walkers and bikers going to and from the school.
The city of Baxter worked with MnDOT and received an additional $10,000 from the Safe Routes to School Program to study the options of a pedestrian trail along Fairview. The study came up with multiple options ranging from an estimated $322,608 to $730,258. An additional $150,000 to $595,000 is expected in private utility costs. Challenges include stormwater and the close proximity of houses, which include ones in the Fairview Road right of way.
Administrator Gordon Heitke said if the council decided the trail was a priority the next question was how to pay for it. In addition to pursuing grant funding, the council looked at funding partnerships such as the Brainerd School District.
Mayor Darrel Olson noted Fairview Road is a city street and thought MnDOT may be a more likely funding partner. Although council member Jim Klein said if the city wasn’t joined in sharing the cost with the Brainerd School District, he’d vote no.
Heikte suggested the council shouldn’t seek the grant unless it really wanted to go forward.
If the school district doesn’t participate, Klein said the city shouldn’t foot the entire bill.
“I just think it’s imperative we get some dialogue going with the school district,” Klein said, adding school officials he already talked vigorously nodded yes when asked about the need. But he said school officials weren’t going to do anything unless someone goes to them. He suggested someone make a presentation to the school board. Even if the school district split the cost, Heitke said the city could be left with a $300,000 bill.
“If the school board don’t cough up some money on it, I’d say it’s a dead issue.” Klein said. “They all agree absolutely it’s a good project (and) it should be done for the safety of the kids. Now let them put their money where their mouth is. ... If not, well then I guess it’s another study that sits on the shelf.”
In addition to the school traffic, Olson said children are riding along that route all summer to reach Oscar Kristofferson Park.
Among unanswered questions, Olson said, is how much traffic Fairview Road gets and if a smaller project may solve some of the problems. With no sidewalks on Memorywood Drive, council member Todd Holman wondered if parents would let their children walk or bike from residential areas to get to the trail if it were constructed.
“If we build it, will they come?” Holman asked. “It’s a huge investment.”
Holman said a reasonable place to start may be gathering the numbers and working on the idea for a future funding cycle. Klein said joggers and bicyclists use Memorywood to reach Fairview on their way to the park.
Heitke said the council may first need to choose an option to know how much the cost will be and how the city will live up to its half.
He also noted the city will have to balance the project’s spending against other projects in the city to determine its priority.
“These are all good ideas,” Holman said. “Nobody is disputing that. It’s just can we budget or fund them this cycle.”
In the end, the council consensus was to consider the project for 2015 or 2016 funding cycle while more information is gathered.