Youthful advocates put on case for a footbridge


The Centennial Lane Elementary School fourth-graders who asked Howard County officials last night for a footbridge over the busy street in front of their school have learned research techniques and presentation skills, but their goal still seems elusive.

The bridge they crave over the 13,111 daily vehicle trips the county has measured on Centennial Lane might be moving farther from reality instead of nearer, based on county capital budgets of the past few years.

The budget adopted last spring called for design of Centennial's bridge now, with construction to begin after July 1, followed by construction of a similar bridge at Rockburn Elementary in Elkridge. But with a recession under way and slowing county revenues, both projects have been pushed back to fiscal years 2005 and 2006 at the earliest.

Last night's Planning Board hearing in Ellicott City drew about 60 people to speak about $130 million worth of capital budget requests. The board will make recommendations to County Executive James N. Robey, who will winnow the list, hold a hearing March 13, and reveal his capital budget proposal April 1.

Several speakers, leading a group of 17 worried Worthington Elementary parents, came to plead for a project not on the county's list - capping soils around the Ellicott City school that tests have shown hold potentially toxic metals.

Despite the pessimistic outlook, Emma Balcom, twins Victoria and Stefanie Rain, Lindsay Scheetz and Sarah Williams are undeterred, filled with the bright, bubbling enthusiasm of their nine years of life.

If the bridge isn't built right away, "We'll probably hope they'll do it in future years," Lindsay said confidently Monday, after practicing her part in the presentation in teacher Joanne Scheler's enrichment class.

The girls are embarked on what is called a "Type III Investigation" in education jargon. They've had a sit-down with area County Councilmen Allan H. Kittleman and Christopher J. Merdon and Planning Board Chairwoman Joan Lancos, and they've got their facts down pat.

Such as:

Pupils who live across the street from school must travel there by bus, forcing longer morning waits and more county expense ($54,000 a year).

Time is money. The $405,000 cost of bridge construction will increase as the years pass.

Fewer bus trips mean less pollution and less traffic.

A total of 212 pupils at Centennial Lane live less than a mile from school and could walk. The bridge would cut the number of bus riders in half.

Twenty-four percent of pupils surveyed said they would use a bridge to visit friends across Centennial Lane. Now, they must ask parents to drive them.

Walking is good exercise.

But it's definitely a "maybe later" kind of year in Howard and across the nation, with the recession forcing local governments to postpone and delay projects to cover the revenue gaps.

With surplus cash a fond memory and state school construction funding expected to dip, Robey said, "We won't be going to that [$130 million] limit." He said he is worrying over how to get through the rest of this fiscal year in the face of a projected $18 million shortfall in operating revenues.

To satisfy all the requests the Planning Board heard last night - including $78 million for education - the county would have to borrow $62 million by selling bonds, $19 million more than last year. But next to a new western middle school, a new northeast elementary and additions to Howard and Oakland Mills high schools - not to mention highways, bridges and sewers - the two footbridges might get low priority.

Besides, county Public Works Director James M. Irvin said, these bridges are often issues.

"Some people don't like to use them," Irwin said.

Still, the fourth-graders were ready. Led by their teacher and helped by Jon T. Merryman, PTA safety committee chairman, the girls were outfitted in white construction hard hats emblazoned with the words "FOOTBRIDGE COMMITTEE," as they held up a folding display board and read preprinted segments of their speech.

Merryman said children driven every place never develop safe street-crossing skills, which is why the PTA organizes a day each year when everyone walks to school - with police crossing guards.

"We have plenty of sidewalks, but you can only walk within the neighborhood," he said. "Children can't visit their friends."

Elsewhere in the county, next year's capital budget would provide money for such projects as the start of development of Western Regional Park in Glenwood, Meadowbrook Park at U.S. 29 and Route 100, and to plan development of the new Blandair Park in east Columbia.

In addition, funding would pay for completion of a classroom building at Howard Community College, buy new firetrucks and pumpers, design a fire station to replace the Banneker station near Wilde Lake, renovate and enlarge the county Circuit Courts building in Ellicott City and begin construction of a police/fire training facility in Marriottsville.

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