Sidewalks for students should be the priority, Pasco officials say

DADE CITY — Pasco County elected officials don’t want today’s elementary students old enough to drive when they have sidewalks and a safe way to walk to school.

Meeting on Thursday as the metropolitan planning organization, they set aside what are often territorial concerns about how to prioritize the spending of state transportation money. Instead, they focused on the school district’s recent decision to end bus service for students who live within two miles of their school and have what is considered a safe walking route. ..

Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano suggested an immediate fix was needed.

Finding the money to build sidewalks and prioritizing locations can be complex and time-consuming, he said. Instead, he suggested starting planning now. Then, in three years, when the county and the schools start receiving money from their next penny sales tax, the projects can be built.

“Let’s start designing now,” he said. “The way we’re doing it doesn’t work.”

Voters have yet to say yes to the Penny for Pasco tax renewal. It’s probably going to be on the ballot for consideration later this year. Although the board has not taken formal action, it has made it clear to transportation planning staff that student safety is a big concern.

In general, Mariano expressed frustration with the prioritization process the Metropolitan Planning Organization uses for all projects. He was upset that the sidewalks he wants to see in his neighborhood, such as Zimmerman Road and a connection between Ranch Road and Ponderosa Avenue, weren’t priorities.

“I’m not happy with the scoring system,” he said.

County Commissioner Mike Moore said he heard constituents worry about their children having to walk to school. The district sent out notices two weeks ago regarding the bus policy change. Bus service within two miles of a school is not publicly funded.

This decision was made due to the severe shortage of bus drivers in the district, a shortage that forced changes to school start and end times earlier this year.

“Some of these areas will not be safe routes to school,” Moore said. Having children walk through people’s yards in places where the street was busy and there are no sidewalks “probably won’t work very well,” he said.

Pasco transportation planner Tina Russo spoke of ongoing meetings with school officials to discuss how to handle those concerns.

“We’re going to help fund some of that,” she said. But Russo said the process of figuring out which sidewalks get priority and how to pay for them takes time.

“It unfortunately has to happen now,” Moore said. “Things have to change”

The community may need to come up with creative solutions, in the meantime, such as sending out rotating parent groups with students who have distance to walk, Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said. She said the county will have to go through the process of acquiring rights of way for the sidewalks.

Commissioner Christina Fitzpatrick said she was aware some roads were already designated as unsafe for students, such as Tanglewood Drive, and she asked if the county was identifying other areas where it was unsafe to walk. This would require schools to continue to provide bus service along these routes.

Russo said planners are doing everything possible to address student safety issues.

“We feel the urgency,” Russo said. “It’s been a great discussion with everyone in the county.”

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