Collaborative Hollis effort aims to win state Safe Routes grant

HOLLIS – The police chief, the Highway Safety Committee, the Board of Selectmen and a group of concerned parents agree the town needs to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety, starting with the areas near the middle and elementary schools.

Now, Police Chief Russell Ux plans to lobby the School District to not only come on board, but to help take the lead.

Ux told the Board of Selectmen recently that without a buy-in from the schools, an application for federal funds through the Safe Routes to School program doesn’t stand a chance.

“The bottom line is, the schools have to take a role,” Ux said of a grant application that, if won, could net the town enough money to paint crosswalks, build sidewalks between schools and a busy Main Street intersection, and provide both a school-sponsored walking program and bike safety classes.

Funds, however, are tied to educational requirements and by extension the schools.

Ux said this week he was planning to discuss the program with Superintendent of Schools Susan Hodgdon, but scheduling conflicts have kept them from meeting. A spokesperson for SAU 41 said this week the school district expects to work collaboratively with the police department and the town.

Safe Routes to School was created to improve walking and bike safety for children who live 2 or fewer miles from their school building.

In addition, proponents said, the program reduces air pollution by limiting the number of vehicles that carry children to school, frequently one or two children in a single vehicle.

By making walking to school safer and easier, the program can reduce traffic jams outside the school while promoting daily physical activity and other healthy habits. The program also aims to counter a national epidemic of childhood obesity, proponents say.

Ux said the town has grappled with the issue of pedestrian safety, including concerns about walking near the town’s middle and elementary schools, for years.

“This is an age-old problem,” he said. “For the 27 years I’ve been here, Main Street safety has been an issue.”

Ux said concerns about pedestrian – and traffic – safety are well-founded: the only reason there have been so few accidents in the area between Route 122 and Main Street, near the Town Common, is that motorists use extra caution there, he said.

“They’re more careful because it’s so dangerous,” Ux observed. “Sidewalks from the elementary schools to Four Corners are desperately needed.”

Town officials are standing behind the chief’s recommendation.

“We’re laying the groundwork,” Troy Brown, the town administrator, said of efforts under way to apply for the federal funds.

It was Eliza LeCours, the mother of a Hollis/Brookline Middle School student, who started the most recent ball rolling in June, after her 12-year-old son announced that he was planning to bike to the middle school.

There is no crosswalk at the middle school, on heavily traveled Route 122, not far from the town’s center. LeCours was worried that her son’s safety would be jeopardized, as it is for any child who crosses the street outside the school.

Almost immediately, LeCours e-mailed the members of the Board of Selectmen, urgent to convince them to act. “This is a tragedy in the making, and it is only by sheer luck that nothing regrettable has happened,” she wrote.

LeCours said parents in the community have “rallied” behind the effort, even in its earliest stages.

Parents and officials are also looking to neighboring Brookline, which received a Safe Routes grant last year, she said.

Brookline received a $105,000 competitive federal grant to pay for the construction of 1,300 feet of sidewalk near the Richard Maghakian Memorial School and 200 feet near the Captain Samuel Douglass Academy.

Funds were also earmarked for the purchase of speed feedback signs and to run a bike safety course in the schools.

As part of the grant, Brookline also instituted a “Fresh Air Fridays,” a day every week when parents and children gather at the town ballpark and walk the short distance to Maghakian school.

More than 40 schools statewide have similar programs aimed at increasing children’s daily activity while providing safe passage to and from school.