Umatilla Aims to Continue 'Safe Routes' Program

Safe Routes to School
Umatilla officials will have to find some extra money if they want to fully fund its Safe Routes To School project. The bulk of the money would go toward making the parking lot at McNary Heights Elementary School safer for pedestrians and vehicles.

[quote style=”2″]Increased Construction Costs Could Downsize Project[/quote]

Both the city and the local school district will likely put up funds to help a “Safe Routes to School” project continue in Umatilla.

In April 2011, Umatilla was awarded a $390,000 “Safe Routes to School” grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation. The project planned to install a bus lane and re-work the front parking lot at McNary Heights Elementary and provide lighting for students using foot paths along the Umatilla River from South Hill to Clara Brownell Middle School.

Cost increases in the past two years have pushed project estimates closer to $520,000, and Umatilla City Manager Bob Ward said items could be removed from the project to keep it under the grant award.

The bulk of the funding will go toward improvements at McNary, including the new bus lane, which will cut diagonally from Columbia Boulevard to Chenowith Street, separating students from vehicle traffic. The parking lot layout and design would also be changed.

Currently, buses and passenger vehicles pull into an oval-shaped driveway at the front of the school dissected by a crosswalk. Buses drop students off at the curb while passenger vehicles pull into one of two rows of slanted parking spaces. To leave the parking lot, passenger vehicles must back into either the drop-off lane or directly onto Columbia Boulevard.

Ward said the city has had multiple “close calls” of pedestrians being hit by vehicles around the school.

“I think it would accomplish some good safety improvements that are much needed at the school,” he said.

Even with the extra funding, Ward said grant administrators are working with designers to find more cost-effective methods for the project.

“It’s really a major revisiting of the original project,” Ward said. “ODOT is allowing us some leeway because of the major shortfall, as long as it follows the original intent of the project.”

Funding from the city and school district would likely pay for lighting improvements along the trails, leaving the grant funding for the larger project at McNary Heights. Umatilla Police Lt. Keith Kennedy said any lighting improvements would make the area safer.

“The lighting, it would, definitely (increase safety),” Kennedy said. “The number of kids that travel there to and from school, to and from sporting events, any lighting you could get down there would be beneficial.”

City staff proposed donating $35,000 toward the project. The funding would come from the city’s streets department, including an amount set aside to save for a new street sweeper. Council members supported the idea but vetoed the original suggestion of $35,000 because of funding concerns.
“We have a very good budget this year, better than a lot of cities around here,” Councilman George Fenton said. “Over the last few months, we’ve been chipping away at it. I don’t know how long we can maintain that.”

Fenton proposed matching the amount donated by the Umatilla School District for the project, not to exceed $30,000. The motion passed unanimously. Ward said the Umatilla School District had indicated an interest in contributing some funding, around $15,000, for the project.

On Wednesday, Umatilla School District Superintendent Heidi Sipe confirmed the Umatilla School Board will discuss its contribution at its next board meeting, 7 p.m. Aug. 15 at the Umatilla School District Office on Sixth St.

“Safe Routes to School” is a national program by the federal highway administration designed to give students safe and appealing transportation to school, including by reducing traffic and increasing the appeal of walking or biking.