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Amid strong opposition, city mulls ‘Safe Route’ plan for Stettin Elementary

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By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — City leaders next week will again review a proposed ‘Safe Route’ plan for Stettin Elementary School that has been the subject of heated debate among parents and residents who live in along the project’s route.

Supporters say the Safe Route plan would encourage more children to bike or walk to school by improving safety conditions along Stettin Drive. But a majority of the parents polled in the study said they would not allow their children to use a proposed bicycle/pedestrian path even if it was constructed. Others say the path will put an unnecessary tax burden on Stettin taxpayers and will force some residents to give up their property.

Results of a survey given to 287 parents of Stettin Elementary School children regarding a proposed Safe Route plan. Source: City of Wausau Government

Another concern: Students in the area could lose access to busing to school if the paths are created, according to Wausau School Board President Jeff Leigh.

In September, city officials received a petition signed by 242 residents who oppose the project, and more than 71 percent of people who responded to a poll April 25 presented by the North Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission said they did not support any change in infrastructure.

The roughly $600,000 project initially called for construction of a 10-foot wide asphalt trail stretching about 3,700 feet and would include a bridge crossing the Little Rib River. The cost estimate does not include property acquisition for easements that would be required for the project’s completion. New suggestions from NCWRPC recommend moving forward with some, but not all, of the originally proposed improvement and calls for adding stop signs along Stettin Drive, increasing bike rack capacity at the school, painting clearly visible “safe route to school” crosswalks at certain intersections, allowing children to ride bicycles on sidewalks, and educating motorists on how to share the road safely with bicycles and pedestrians.

City staff is recommending the council move forward with the plan, according to a memo from Assistant Planner Bradley Sippl.

So far, the proposed project has encountered some strong opposition from residents, prompting the Wausau School Board in April to reject the city’s request to share in the $17,600 cost to plan the route. City council members then voted to fund the study fully without the school district’s contribution.

City Council Alderman Dennis Smith called the project unnecessary ‘madness” that has little chance of receiving state funding.

“It would appear this unwanted project has a longer lifespan than a vampire,” said Smith, who voted against the measure. “While not in my district I have communicated with those property owners who will be negatively impacted by this project and, to say the least, they are not happy.” 

While Wausau continues the conversation, the controversy has not subsided in Stettin, where several public information meetings have been held in recent months. On May 30, members of the Stettin Town Board voted against pursuing any of the suggested infrastructure projects due to a lack of community support.

In public comments made April 9 to the Wausau School Board, Jeff Dix, a resident who lives on Stettin Drive, said  project is part of Wausau’s “aggressive” bike path agenda and will make the route to school less, not more, safe for children. Another Stettin Drive resident, Jeff Kern, told board members that the schools already offer the safest way to get children to school: buses.

“This is only the second time in the 30-plus years I’ve been living in the Wausau School District that I’ve felt compelled to speak out,” said Kern, whose two daughters attended the old Stettin Elementary before the current school was built. “I believe the Wausau School District already has the means to determine how to keep our students safe. This idea has created a lot of animosity and more than 240 residents signed a petition against it.”

State law requires schools to provide busing for students living more than two miles from school and for students living less than two miles from school if there are hazardous conditions that could threaten student safety. If the city mitigates those hazards, so-called “hazard busing” would likely be discontinued.

In April, some members of the city council were sharply critical of the School Board’s decision to reject funding for the study and voted to move forward with the project in part because Wisconsin Department of Transportation grants could pay for a portion of the cost.

But the latest report cautions that future grant requests are not likely to succeed until community sentiment and town of Stettin support changes in favor of making the suggested improvements. The city did apply for a grant in 2016 but the request was not granted.

Safe Routes to School programs encourage children in grades K-8 to walk and bike to school by creating safer walking and biking routes. These programs were initially funded through the revised federal transportation act, SAFETEA-LU, which was signed into law on August 10, 2005. This legislation provided funding to state departments of transportation to create and administer SRTS programs. SRTS programs improve walking and biking travel options, promote healthier lifestyles in children at an early age, and decrease auto-related emissions near schools.

NCWRCP Planner Fred Heider, who is spearheading the project planning, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The CISM committee will review the plan at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 12 at City Hall and will then be forwarded to the full council for final approval.

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