PORTLAND, Maine — Construction projects designed to create safer walking and biking paths on Portland streets are nearly complete.
Throughout much of the summer, the East Deering, East End and North Deering neighborhood sidewalks and crossings have been receiving enhancements as part of a project called Safe Routes to Schools.
Crews have repaved, extended and widened sidewalks; added pedestrian-refuge medians and erected new signs. They’ve also installed pedestrian-activated flashing warning lights along some of the crosswalks in the Washington Avenue and Tukey’s Bridge areas.
Bruce Hyman, who leads bicycle and pedestrian initiatives for the city, said the project is on schedule to be finished in the next couple weeks. Remaining items include final sidewalk surface coating, new Exit 8 signs to direct traffic leaving Interstate 295 South and warning panels at all curb ramps for the blind or visually impaired.
“It will be, we think, a very dramatic increase in safety,” Hyman said, adding the pathways will connect the East Bayside, East End and Deering neighborhoods. “There was just poor accessibility for bicyclists and pedestrians prior to these projects beginning.”
The projects also extend the Back Cove Trail path down the Tukey’s Bridge ramp, to allow designated pedestrian and bicycle access to East Bayside and the Bayside Trail.
The construction was expected to cost about $325,000, but Hyman said he expects the final costs to come in lower than anticipated. The projects are funded by a combination of federal, state and local money.
While the safety enhancements will benefit everyday walkers and cyclists, Hyman said, one of the project’s primary purposes is to improve safety for students walking to school, including the Walking School Bus program operated by the Portland Public Schools.
The walking school bus is an alternative to riding the traditional school bus and is intended get students outside and exercising. The five-day-a-week program — the first of its kind in the state – is entering its second year, although it only serves students at East End Community School and Reiche Elementary School.
Program coordinator Betsy Critchfield said the program is likely to be expanded this fall to the Lyseth and Riverton schools, although the School Department is still waiting to receive word about funding.
“In the worst-case scenario, we’ll operate at two schools,” she said. “We’re really hoping Riverton and Lyseth will also want to hop on board, so we can be in action there, too.”
And while the program is funded with a three-year, $30,000 federal grant and coordinated by the school department, parents can always start their own walking school bus programs for free, as they have at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, Critchfield said.
The school-facilitated programs have the benefit of designated coordinators and reliable “drivers,” she said. They can also offer students incentives for walking to school, by giving them prizes for the days they participate.
“We have found that the simplest of initiatives, like key chains and stickers, tend to be pretty big motivators for kindergartners and first-graders,” Critchfield said. “We’re working on getting some items like lunch boxes and backpacks, and even some sneakers, as prizes. We want kids to get out and walk as much as they can.”
Last school year, about 100 students participated in the program, along with about 25 volunteers, she said, noting that they are always looking for more volunteers.
While there have been safety improvements in the neighborhoods that currently have the walking school bus program, there are still needs in other areas, Critchfield said.
“One concern that I still have in the Lyseth neighborhood is that there are streets where there are no crosswalks,” Critchfield said. “We’re going to have to look at that and help the community advocate for infrastructure improvements.”
Hyman said the city has been working to secure funding for crosswalk improvements in the Lysteh and Riverton neighborhoods, but nothing has been finalized.
In addition to the Safe Routes work, the city recently received federal and Community Development Block Grant funding for a Bicycle Boulevard Network, which will connect the Deering, Libbytown and Rosemont neighborhoods to the Portland Transportation Center near Thompson’s Point.
The city also received funding from the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System for a bicycle by-way in East Bayside, along Anderson Street. The by-way is intended to merge into the current Safe Routes projects.
Hyman said the city expects to draw up designs for that project this winter and start construction summer 2014.