HARWICH — The planning stage for the $600,000 Safe Routes to School sidewalk project around Harwich Elementary School is underway with an eye on providing a safe evacuation route for students and staff should an emergency occur.
Selectmen on Monday night received an update on the project from Harwich Elementary School Principal Mary Oldach and Town Engineer Griffin Ryder, who met with state officials and consulting engineers for the project last week.
The grant awarded to the school and town will improve sidewalks along South Street, Sisson Road, Main Street and potentially along Parallel Street as far as Bank Street. The improvements will bring sidewalks into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act as well as encourage bicycle use.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is encouraging kids to walk and ride bicycles to school, Oldach said. During crisis and evacuation drills she realized the deficiencies in narrow sidewalks and the difficulty in moving 560 students and another 100 staff members along sidewalks suitable only for one to two people to a safe location such as the community center or the library.
When MassDOT established the grant program, she applied and the town received Gold Star status based on the evacuation program, the involvement in bike rodeos and because 40 percent of students have free or reduced lunch status. Oldach was notified in February that the town was awarded the grant.
Ryder said there were 14 communities awarded grants and $15 million is available, estimating each project could receive $1 million. He said that will cover the cost of design and construction but not any right of way acquisitions.
While improvements down Parallel Street to Bank Street are being considered, Ryder said there is no sidewalk infrastructure there. The design work will determine if acquisitions would be required and whether improvements would be more impactful than desired. A project review committee will meet in mid-August, he said. The town has been awarded the contract, and construction will take place between 2022 and 2024.
Town Administrator Christopher Clark said there were discussions at the onsite meeting about whether MassDOT will require Complete Streets compliance, which would include sidewalks on both side of the road and bike lanes.
“This project does not lend itself to both sides of the street,” Clark said. “It’s a new program and there is a level of uncertainty for state officials.” More information will be known when the 25 percent to 75 percent design stage is reached. If necessary, a project exception from Complete Streets requirements will be sought because it would be problematic and challenging to comply, and could require right of way acquisitions, he said.
Clark talked about establishing an evacuation route that would bring students and staff down Island Pond Road into the cemetery to the rail trail, which leads directly to Monomoy Regional High School and the community center. That is a safe, short route to facilities that could handle 700 people and keep them off the main roads.
Selectman Donald Howell expressed concerns about Complete Streets compliance when the grant was initially announced. His concerns were with impacts along Main Street in the village relating to sidewalk configurations and bike lanes. He pointed out MassDOT altered the Complete Streets requirements for the Route 137 improvements, but not so with the proposed improvements for Route 124, which the town eventually turned aside.
Board of Selectman Chairman Larry Ballantine said he hoped there could be flexibility in the Complete Streets program because it’s vital to easily move kids to a safe location.
“If Complete Streets means no safe means to school, it doesn’t look good,” Ryder said of the state program. Ryder said the town will know the answer by the 25 percent design phase, when a public hearing will be held. He said he will update selectmen when information becomes available.