by CHRIS ROGERS
Downtown St. Charles is about to become more pedestrian-friendly thanks to a big state grant. Last week, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) gave out $2 million to Safe Routes to School projects across the state, from Lake Country to Caledonia. St. Charles got the largest single grant award of any grantee in the state: $300,000, the maximum amount allowable under the program.
Together with money from the city of St. Charles and St. Charles Public Schools, the grant will fund a host of improvements to the intersections of 11th Street and Whitewater Avenue/Highway 74 and 11th Street and Church Avenue, including new curb "bump outs," crosswalks, and pedestrian crossing signs with button-activated flashing lights. The project would also straighten out the currently skewed intersection at 11th Street and Whitewater Avenue by shifting a portion of 11th Street just west of Whitewater Avenue to the north, so that it lines up with 11th Street east of Whitewater Avenue. The city and the school district are working with CHS to acquire the company's property on the corner, which would be needed to accommodate the street relocation.
Grade school students often walk from the school to the nearby library, but city and school officials explained that, as it exists today, 11th Street is not currently the best place to cross Whitewater Avenue. The skew of the intersection means that pedestrians have a long distance to walk from one sidewalk to another as a state highway and St. Charles' main drag, Whitewater Avenue is busy. Currently, crossing guards help students get across safely, and those will not go away once the project is finished, but it will help make the crossing safer for students and for citizens and visitors to downtown, St. Charles Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roubinek explained. "We're working hard to get across the two highways that bisect the community," Roubinek said. "This would get us across [Highway] 74 and provide a nice crossing between the elementary school and the pubic library."
Under the plan, curb bump outs would extend the sidewalk further into the street on both Whitewater Avenue and Church Avenue, shortening the distance pedestrians have to cross, making pedestrians waiting to cross more visible to drivers, and encouraging drivers to slow down.
"Our downtown is the heart of our town, so to be able to provide a safer intersection with crosswalks and bump outs for both our young residents as well as everybody … it will just make it a safer place," city administrator Nick Koverman said.
St. Charles has worked hard on Safe Routes to School, a federal program that helps schools and cities make it safer and easier for students to walk and bike to school. The connection between the elementary school and the library were identified as a top priority in a citywide plan completed last year. The city and the school district also won a grant for a fleet of bicycles that will be used for bicycle safety education in grade school physical education classes this spring. Federal, state, and local public health officials praise the role of walking and biking to school in increasing activity among youth, and St. Charles was part of a recent Winona County Public Health effort to promote walking as a form of transportation in cities within the county.