With more kids expected to walk to school this fall due to a shortage of bus drivers, Charlottesville’s top priority over the next several weeks is to ensure city students have a safe route to and from school.
That effort will involve cutting weeds along students’ routes, repairing sidewalks, installing traffic-controlling flex posts and adding additional signs.
“We see this as not just the Charlottesville City Schools problem; it belongs to all of us,” Deputy City Manager Sam Sanders said during a presentation to City Council on Monday.
About 750 Charlottesville students are no longer eligible for bus service to their respective schools and will need to find another way to school. Last month the school division expanded the areas from which kids would not be picked up by buses, so-called walk zones, in response to a severe shortage of bus drivers. City and school division staff have been letting families in the zones know of the changes and to determine what resources are needed to ensure a safe walk to school.
The school division has yet to release recommended walking routes for each school but those maps are expected by the end of the month.
On Friday, schools Superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. will be at Hearthwood Apartments from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. to talk with families and walk to Walker Upper Elementary. Another talk and walk session will be held at the same time July 29 at Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church.
In the last month, community members and parents have called on the city to make safety improvements in and around the schools, calling current pedestrian and cycling infrastructure is inadequate. Advocacy group Livable Cville sent a letter to City Council requesting $1 million for Safe Routes to School projects.
The city is planning to put $500,000 toward such projects in addition to other available funds, according to a presentation Monday.
“We believe we have other funds in the budget that can actually exceed the amount that has been suggested,” interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers told councilors. “This is a high-priority area.”
The $500,000 will come from federal American Rescue Plan money that the city received, according to the presentation. That spending plan still needs to be approved by City Council, but in the meantime, city staff are getting to work.
Sanders said he’s assembled a cross-department team to act quickly to respond to the school division’s priorities whether that’s more crosswalks or more signs.
“The goal is to try to figure out what kind of recommendations are quick and easy to implement, cost-effective and definitely long-term effective,” he said. “We’re looking to capture proposals from neighborhood-led groups, hoping that we’ll be able to deploy those groups in doing some of the work as well since they have offered to do so.”
The city also is trying to address the driver shortage by considering compensation and a potential partnership with the Albemarle County school division, Sanders said. He’s also talked with regional transportation system JAUNT about possibly sharing drivers.
The plan presented Monday includes projects that can be completed before the school year begins Aug. 24 as well as some that will take a few months. Sanders said the city also wants to reboot the Safe Routes to School program, which is aimed at creating safe, fun and convenient ways for students to walk or bike to school.
Right now, city staff are inspecting sidewalks, crosswalks and weed-cutting areas as well as evaluating where to put flex posts and additional signs, Sanders said. Projects will begin next weekend and overtime will be provided if necessary.
“We recognize our role in getting this work done, and we will be continuing to work on this and make sure that we can get as much of this implemented as quickly as possible,” he said.
The presentation did not include details about specific locations or intersections. However, community members have made their own lists of areas in need of improvement along with suggestions such as the 10th and Page streets and Monticello Avenue and Avon Street intersections.
Recently, one such area — the intersection of East High and Hazel streets — became the focus of a new Twitter account, @EastHighatHazel. The intersection was labeled one of Charlottesville’s most neglected road crossings in the account’s biography.
The intersection, which has a crosswalk but no traffic light, is part of the walking route for some Burnley-Moran Elementary students and has long been a concern for families.
“I’ll do my best to keep you safe, but I need some help from @CvilleCityHall, @CvillePW, @CvilleSchools, @royalgurley, and others to really do my job well,” the account wrote in its first tweet, tagging the Charlottesville City Hall and Public Works as well the school division and superintendent.
Sanders told council that his team will meet weekly with the school division regarding the issue.
“We have at least four different departments that are engaged in this conversation actively right now,” Sanders said. “With me having hit the priority button for all of them to understand that means we dropped other things to make this the priority for the moment.”
For more information about the transportation changes, go to http://charlottesvilleschools.org/transportation.