DIGGING DEEPER: Student safety an issue ‘where the sidewalk ends’

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) – The effect of the 2015 cutbacks on bus transportation for students in the Fort Wayne Community Schools system has been compounded by a failure of local government to add sidewalks on walking routes used by thousands of students, an ABC21 Digging Deeper investigation has found.

The price tag to remedy the issue: a whopping $70 million.

Right now, every school day morning — and again in the afternoon — children who live within the designated “No Transportation Zones” are walking or bicycling on roads alongside cars and trucks.

Bus transportation is not provided to FWCS high school students who live within 2 miles of campus, nor to elementary and middle school students within 1.5 miles.

Yet the routes to numerous schools lack sidewalks and, at many points, even an easement of grass or dirt.

That’s the case on East State Blvd. near Maysville Road, a busy stretch of street that leads up to Blackhawk Middle School.

“Every day I go by there, and I could see these kids and a couple times I almost hit a couple of them,” said Greg Parks, who owns Wheelin’ Water, a nearby business. “The kids have to actually walk on the road. There is no sidewalk anywhere.

“It’s a very dangerous situation.”

Sidewalks do run along East State Blvd. in front of Blackhawk Middle School, but they end just past Bellshire Way.

There is — at least — a portion of sidewalk. ABC21 found it runs along the south side of State Blvd. from Blackhawk Middle, past the neighboring private school. But…

“They stopped just short of finishing the job,” Parks explained.

Parks took the issue to city leaders more than a year ago, but says nothing has changed. That’s when he reached out to the Digging Deeper team.

We learned that Allen County had, for many years, been responsible for maintaining and improving bridges — like the one on State. So while the City of Fort Wayne added some sidewalks, it was up to the County to widen the bridge and provide any continuity for pedestrians as they crossed.

That didn’t happen. And in October 2017, the responsibility for that bridge and others transferred from the County to the City.

The good news: City officials say the improvement is planned and should be finished by the fall.

The same can’t be said for other similar problem spots.

“The unfortunate reality is there are a lot of spots in the district I represent where kids are walking to school along busy roads without sidewalks,” First District City Councilman Paul Ensley said.

He noted three schools in his district — St. Joe Elementary, Arlington Elementary and Harris Elementary — with sidewalks that dead-end before they get to campus or that have long stretches with no sidewalk at all.

REVIEW: Complete list of priority sidewalk improvement projects 

Ensley’s frustration is with what he considers a failure by the mayor to designate funds for the necessary work, and — especially — the timetable to address concerns.

That’s where the $70 million estimate comes into play.

“You throw the $70 million number around…” mused Ensley. “We just found $50 million for the Electric Works project. So to suggest the money isn’t there is simply not true.

“It really is a matter of priorities.”

Ensley’s position: The City could overhaul the most problematic school routes in five years or less if it made that a top priority.

John Perlich is a spokesman for Mayor Tom Henry, and he’s quick to point to recent infrastructure investment by the City.

Perlich argues that downtown development and the Riverfront project — while important — aren’t coming at the expense of neighborhood improvements.

“The councilman is concerned about a lack of sidewalks, but when a plan has been put forward to invest more money in sidewalks, that’s being criticized as well,” he said. “Right now, Riverfront is on the back end and alleys and sidewalks are on the front end.

“I don’t think anyone can argue that if you put $130 million in neighborhoods — which includes sidewalks over the past five years — and are going to do another $31 million in 2019 and probably $30 million more as the years go on.”

The 2019 Civil City Budget laid out by the mayor includes $6.5 million in money specifically for sidewalk and alley improvements. An additional $23.1 million is set aside for other neighborhood infrastructure projects.

The situation is compounded by a move to cap property taxes, which voters approved several years ago. That’s put limitations on both school system and City budgets.

FWCS notes that it implemented “No Transportation Zones” for the 2015-16 school year because, officials say, the district lost millions of dollars that went toward bus service as a direct result of the property tax cap.

Jonathan Shelley

Jonathan Shelley

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