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Belmont considers seeking Safe Routes to School funding


February 03, 2011
BELMONT — With interest from the town and the school district, Belmont may be moving forward with a Safe Routes to School project.

Nick Coates, a Belmont resident and employee of the Central NH Regional Planning Commission, visited the Shaker Regional School Board Thursday to explain the purpose and scope of Safe Routes to School.

Coates prefaced his talk by saying that if he were to write a book about Safe Routes to School, he would call it "It's Not About the Sidewalk." He said the common misconception is that the program brings free sidewalks to towns. In reality, its purpose is to promote healthy lifestyles by improving student knowledge of road safety, increasing physical activity and building a sense of community. It also makes federal highway administration money available to the state Department of Transportation, which then allocates it to towns that prove they can make good use of it.

Adding to Coates' presentation was Regional Planner David Jeffers of the Lakes Region Planning Commission, which is the commission Belmont would be working with. He explained that in the Safe Routes to School process, the LRPC can help facilitate meetings and guide discussions and can do mapping to determine which areas might need assistance. The commission can also help put grant proposals together.

"We serve sort of a dual role in this," Jeffers said. "We help in putting the grant together but we also have a role in scoring it and helping it move onto the DOT."

Coates said that Safe Routes to School, which is geared toward students in kindergarten through eighth grade, follows a five-pronged approach. It starts with surveying parents to find out what worries they may have regarding their children walking to school. The education component teaches kids how to walk to school safely. Encouragement comes from the school district and the community as a whole, and enforcement gets the police department involved to help facilitate safer walking routes.

The funding comes in the form of grants, from which there are three. One is a "start-up" grant that gives a community $5,000 or less for preliminary planning. Comprehensive travel plan funding provides up to $15,000 per school, and general grants for infrastructure funding is capped at $250,000 in communities that have developed comprehensive travel plans.

"The best part is that it's all federally reimbursed," Coates said. "It's zero dollars and zero cents to the community."

Coates said he has talked to both Parent Teacher Organizations, which has shown a general interest, and town administration has been supportive as well. He told the School Board that if they're interested, he will help get a task force going.

"We would like some support from the School Board both in membership if possible and if we do move forward on a grant we'd like to be able to come back and report on the progress," Coates said.

The board did not make any decisions at that meeting.

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