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The view Monday from the roof of Mitchell Technical Institute's Campus Center. MTI plans to use grant money to build a path between its campus and the nearby business district, but will first have to work with state, city and county officials to devise a plan to cross nearby railroad tracks. (Chris Mueller/Republic)

Transportation Alternatives Program uneasy path to MTI's sidewalk construction

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Transportation Alternatives Program uneasy path to MTI's sidewalk construction
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

A plan to use state grant money to build pathways between Mitchell Technical Institute's campus and the business district in southern Mitchell is being bogged down because of a nearby railroad.

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In March, the South Dakota Transportation Commission, a part of the state Department of Transportation, awarded MTI a $213,375 grant as part of the department's Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP). The commission awarded nearly $2.1 million in grants to 11 communities, counties and tribes in the state.

MTI will use the grant money to build safe paths for students between the school's campus and the nearby business district, according to MTI President Greg Von Wald. Right now, Von Wald said students who want to walk or bike away from campus take the risk of crossing the busy intersection at Spruce Street and Burr Street.

"Before a student gets hurt, we want to make sure we have a solution," Von Wald said Monday.

In the first phase of the project, a path will be built along Spruce Street from the east end of MTI's property to the railroad tracks to the west, which run parallel to Burr Street. A part of the path will branch off and connect to paths near the student apartments.

But the state Department of Transportation has told MTI the grant money won't be released until a plan is devised to cross the railroad tracks, Von Wald said. A pedestrian railroad crossing will have to be built, he said, but it can't be funded by the grant money and will require cooperation among officials with the school, the state, the city of Mitchell and Davison County.

Exactly what will be built and how it will be funded is yet to be determined, Von Wald said.

"We just have to get all the parties together and figure that out," he said.

Von Wald said he is not overly concerned the situation will lead to a prolonged delay of the sidewalk project. Initially, the plan was to finish the planning stages of the project to allow construction to begin next year, he said.

"It's still possible to do that, but we need to have the railroad problem fixed," he said.

A plan to widen Spruce Street in the future could potentially add to an already complicated situation, Von Wald said.

The lack of pathways connecting the campus with the surrounding area was an issue Von Wald said he knew would have to be addressed when the school moved to its campus south of Interstate 90.

"We knew there were going to be issues, but the main thing was getting the buildings up," he said.

TAP is a grant program that uses federal transportation funds for specific activities that provide safe, alternative transportation options.

TAP applicants may include local governments, schools and school districts, tribal governments, natural resource and public land agencies or transit agencies. Funds may be used for engineering, construction and educational or encouragement activities. Funded projects require a minimum 18.05 percent match.

Here's a look at the other two projects in the area that received funding through the Transportation Alternatives Program:

Plankinton

The Plankinton School District will use state grant money to build sidewalks between the school and residential neighborhoods to the north, but will also have to cross a railroad in the process.

The district was awarded a $284,957 TAP grant, which will be used to build sidewalks from the northern edge of the school's property to First Street, about two-and-a-half blocks to the north, according to Aurora County Auditor Susan Urban. A crosswalk will also be put in near the intersection of East State Street and Campbell Street as part of the project.

The sidewalk will be built up to the right-of-way of a railroad that runs east and west to the north of the school, Urban said. When a railroad crossing is built, it will be matched up with the existing sidewalk and flashing signals will also be installed. The construction of the railroad crossing will be a separate project not funded by the grant money, although the state has federal funds available to help fund safety improvements at railroad crossings, Urban said.

Construction of the sidewalk is expected to begin in May 2015, according to Plankinton School Superintendent Jim Jones.

"It's a very excellent opportunity for the school," Jones said. "There have been some safety issues."

Jones estimated that at least 120 students -- nearly half the school's total enrollment of 260 -- either drive, bike or walk across the railroad tracks on school days. The school's buses also have to cross the tracks, he added.

In future phases of the project, sidewalk could be built farther north, but that will require additional grant money, Jones said.

Armour

The Armour School District was awarded a $180,540 grant for the first phase of a project aimed at increasing the number of paths between the school and nearby residential neighborhoods.

According to Superintendent Burnell Glanzer, the grant money will be used to finish building sidewalk in the immediate vicinity of the school, along with educational materials and incentive programs meant to encourage students to walk or bike to school.

Glanzer said the district applied for the grant after it surveyed parents and found more would be willing to let their children walk or bike to school if they didn't have to deal with traffic.

"We're trying to make sure some of those main arteries connect to the school's sidewalk system," he said.

Future phases of the project may allow for the construction of additional sidewalk farther from the school, but will depend on the district's ability to secure more grant money, Glanzer said.

Glanzer said the district would not have been able to do the first phase of the project without the grant.

"Our city is facing the same kind of monetary pressure that every small town is," he said. "We just don't have the plethora of funds necessary to do projects like this."

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