Walkway underwhelms Janesville School Board

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May 4, 2012
— City officials will apply for a grant to build a pedestrian walkway over Interstate 90/39 behind Monroe Elementary School.

The idea was given a tepid reception by most Janesville School Board members at a special meeting Thursday.

Some school board members questioned the need for a pedestrian overpass, considering the proximity of sidewalks under the Interstate on Milwaukee Street and on Ruger Avenue.

The pedestrian overpass would be built just south of the elementary school and line up with Dover Court on the east side of I-90/39.

The walkway is estimated to cost between $550,000 and $650,000. The city today is applying for a grant to cover design expenses, and federal and state grants are expected to eventually cover the entire cost of the project.

City officials met with school board members Thursday to ask whether the city should apply for the design grant. The state's upcoming expansion of the Interstate, beginning in 2015, makes the project possible, said Carl Weber, city public works director.

"We are informing you of an opportunity—probably a once-in-50-years-type because of the construction—to get something built and funded with other than local funds," he said.

"Our question to you is: 'Do you find benefit in this?' If you don't, there's no reason to go forward."

The city council, the school board and residents would have chances later to debate the merits of the project if the grant is approved, Weber said.

Two school board members, Peter Severson and Kevin Murray, said the city needn't apply. The majority disagreed, saying the community could address the pros and cons of a pedestrian overpass after the city gets the grant. Deborah Schilling and Greg Ardrey were absent.

Weber told the school board the state Department of Transportation approached the city, asking where the city might lack sufficient Interstate crossings.

Staff found a 1968 drawing showing a bridge at the school site and a 40-foot right-of-way platted in a subdivision east of the Interstate across from Monroe. The board would be required to dedicate school property for access to the west end of the overpass.

The project came quickly because the federal government only recently ruled the project could qualify for funds, Weber said. That grant is available every two years, and the deadline to apply is today.

An overpass would complement existing city and school district initiatives to create safe routes to school, Weber said.

Several board members wondered if the benefits outweigh the cost.

Murray said he was uncomfortable with the short notice that gave little chance for public input.

The 1968 drawing was done before Harrison Elementary School was built, and he doubted any children living near the eastern access would even attend Monroe.

"It's not going to cost the school district any money, (but) we all know the money comes from one of our pockets," Murray said.

Severson said the project appeared to be "funding looking for a problem."

He was uncomfortable with a right-of-way allowing the public direct access to elementary school grounds.

Board member David DiStefano questioned whether more children would walk to school and ease traffic congestion at the schools or if it would create another parent drop-off point and more traffic headaches.

Weber said the walkway might give the district more flexibility when drawing school boundaries, but that is something the school would have to investigate.

"The more students you can get walking to school, the fewer cars are dropping off," Weber said.

Board member Kristin Hesselbacher, meanwhile, said those questions could be answered in the future. She noted principals of both Monroe Elementary and nearby Marshall Middle School want the issue explored.

Board member Karl Dommershausen, too, said debate could continue if the grant is approved.

"If we don't support it (the grant application), we've made the decision, not the community," he said.

Board President Bill Sodemann agreed but pointed out that the national debt increased millions of dollars in the short time he talked Thursday. He noted it is about a half-mile walk from the mid-point of Pontiac Avenue to the Milwaukee Street underpass and less than a half-mile walk to the Ruger Avenue underpass.

"So, I'm wondering, is there a need and how big of a need it is in light of our national debt?" he said.

"But I realize if I say no, someone else might take it, anyway."

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