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Westowne Elementary gets sidewalk improvements earlier than expected

Baltimore County has stepped in to make Harlem Lane near Westowne Elementary School more walkable, with the installation of new sidewalk ramps.
Baltimore County has stepped in to make Harlem Lane near Westowne Elementary School more walkable, with the installation of new sidewalk ramps. (Jon Bleiweis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Baltimore County has made improvements to sidewalks near Catonsville's Westowne Elementary, expediting projects that the PTA said are needed so more children can walk safely to school.

The PTA last spring started the process of applying for federal grants from Safe Routes to School, a program that promotes and helps to fund improvements such as sidewalks and bike paths.

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A February 2017 application deadline would have delayed work until at least next year, presuming the projects won funding. The PTA had approached the county for assistance with the grant — and instead it took over the projects.

The Westowne Elementary School PTA hopes to secure Safe Routes to School funding for bicycle and pedestrian access improvements near the school.

"It saves us a lot of steps," said Justine Stull, the PTA's president. "It gets most of the work we asked for a whole lot faster."

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By the first day of school, a portion of the work had been completed, including adding a dozen ramps that meet federal disability-act standards along Harlem Lane.

The wheelchair curb ramps have benefited parents who have strollers and walk their children to school, Stull said.

An April survey of 112 Westowne families found 61 percent live less than a mile from the school, but only about one in four have children who regularly walk to school. None said their children ride bikes.

When asked what stops parents from allowing their children to walk or bike to school, the top responses dealt with safety of intersections and crossings, the volume and speed of traffic along the route, and issues with sidewalks or pathways; each of those options was cited by more than 60 percent of the survey takers.

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A new $33.3 million Westowne Elementary School with capacity for 650 students opened this school year, replacing a 482-seat building that was 65 years old.

Bryan Sheppard, a special assistant to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz responsible for community outreach, said it would have been difficult for the county to handle the grant request, as there are other projects in line, and improvements were something that could be handled internally.

There are three projects the county will fund, Sheppard said. In addition to the ramps, the county will improve a county-owned walking path about a quarter-mile long that goes behind the school and connects to the Ingleside neighborhood, and create a sidewalk connection along Old Frederick Road from Academy Road to St. Agnes Lane, finishing a neighborhood sidewalk network.

While work on the path is expected to take place in the spring, there are no cost estimates for the remaining projects at this time and no timeline for the sidewalk project, Sheppard said.

"We want to make this community accessible and compatible for all the neighborhoods and the kids who are there," Sheppard said. "This approach is a faster way to make that happen."

County Councilman Tom Quirk, whose district covers southwest Baltimore County, said he was glad to see the improvements.

"Where there's a significant number of pedestrians and walkers, I think it's important for the county to help where we can to make our streets safer and provide more accessibility for everyone," he said.

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