Minnesota schools receive grants to help ease traffic jams

If it seems like traffic around your kids’ schools has gotten busier over the years, it probably has.

Half of American students get to school by car these days, compared to 12% back in 1969.

Some schools have it worse than others, of course, but the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is trying to help.

You have to get to Minnetonka Middle School East early if you have somewhere to be.

"It's a half hour before my kid gets out of school," said Gina Iannone as she waited in line in the parking lot for her daughter.

While their kids study inside the school, parents are on a learning curve of their own, figuring out how to navigate drop off and pickup.

"As the time comes, the cars will back up all the way to the road," Iannone said. "And then I'd have to wait very long for her to get in the car."
Principal Pete Dymit has a bird's eye view of the traffic from his office.

He sends out occasional traffic updates, and Iannone appreciated his joking mention that some parents keep the car moving while kids tuck and roll out.

"I think we've all kind of been talking about how the traffic seems to be getting, intense in the last couple of years," Dymit said.

He may joke around, but Dymit takes traffic safety seriously.

Since the district capped enrollment a few years ago, he figures the increased traffic is mainly a product of more parents working remotely and wanting the extra time with their kids.

"The busses are much less full now than they were 20 years ago when I started here," Dymit said.

He says the changes that could speed up the process involve adding an entrance on Lake Street Extension, which is complicated.

But he’s noticed at least the bike racks are busier these days, which is also true at Centennial Elementary in Richfield.

"Well, it was a process," said principal Colleen Mahoney.

She says the streets filled with cars and honking until they made some changes.

"What you're looking at is a demonstration project funded through MNDoT Safe Routes to Dchool program," said Richfield Schools traffic coordinator Tim Brackett as car, bike, and pedestrian traffic flowed behind him.

The project started last summer and it’s designed to make it safer for students to come on bike or on foot.

New developments include a crosswalk, traffic cones, and a dedicated walkway.

Since the district got a MNDoT grant to hire a traffic coordinator in 2019, it’s gone from 4% of kids biking or walking to 17% now — from well below the national average to well above.

And with those extra cones and bright staffers directing traffic, even this drizzly day got off to an easy start.

"That's how it usually goes now," said Proncipal Mahoney. "We've really gotten this kind of down to a science, and everything's much safer than it used to be."

Richfield will make the demonstration project permanent next year.

And the school district is one of 35 splitting $1.4 million in new MNDoT grants aimed at accelerating similar safety work in the next year.