Minnesota health commissioner walks the walkDr. Ed Ehlinger checked out a not-so-healthy route to school during a visit to Duluth Hillside neighborhoods on Tuesday.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
Minnesota’s health commissioner checked out a not-so-healthy route to school during a visit to Duluth Hillside neighborhoods on Tuesday.
“We’ve got a real challenge here,” said Dr. Ed Ehlinger, after joining about 20 other people on a walk from Myers-Wilkins Elementary School to East Ninth Street and across heavily trafficked, four-lane Sixth Avenue East. “A huge challenge.”
Ehlinger, who heads the Minnesota Department of Health, has been making periodic visits to a number of Minnesota communities over the past couple of summers to get a read on local health issues and indulge his passion for pitching horseshoes.
His day in the Northland started with a presentation at the Grant Recreation Center in the East Hillside, continued with horseshoe pitching and health conversation in West Duluth and ended with a meeting at a community garden in Grand Marais.
Squeezed in the midst of that was a brief walking tour that nearly mimicked the route a child who lives in the Central Hillside might take home when Myers-Wilkins — the former Grant School — opens its doors for the first time in September.
But although encouraging children to walk to and from school is a healthy choice, children who live less than two blocks away will be bused, said Josh Gorham, a St. Louis County public health nurse. That’s because Ninth Street “has been deemed unsafe for children to cross.”
A few blocks to the west, Sixth Avenue East also is considered too hazardous to cross.
“But as we all know, some of these kids will be walking to school, and this will be one of the main places they cross,” said James Gittemeier, a planner at the Metropolitan Interstate Council, as the group gathered near the Udac building on the opposite side of Sixth Avenue from the school.
The Ninth Street crossing, unlike much of the rest of the avenue, has traffic signals and crosswalks. But a traffic study is underway in hopes of making the length of the roadway more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, Gittemeier said.
“In the meantime, what about a footbridge for the kids?” asked Jamie Zak of the Duluth Community Garden Program.
“A bridge is very expensive,” Gittemeier responded. “If we do a bridge, then we’re saying that this is a highway. Do we want this to be a roadway, or a highway?”
But Sixth Avenue East isn’t the only issue for Myers-Wilkins children, the walking group discovered. Much of the narrow sidewalk along Ninth Street is in poor condition. Participants had to step into the street in several places to avoid overgrown trees and gardens, and at one spot had to walk around a remodeling company truck that was parked across the sidewalk.
It’s even worse in the winter, one participant reminded the group.
When Gorham asked participants what they noticed about traffic on Ninth Street, several people said, “Fast.” Ehlinger added, “And lots of it.”
The walkers paused at Eighth Avenue East and Ninth Street, where a pedestrian crosswalk is marked on the west side of that intersection. But that’s the wrong side for a crosswalk, Gorham said, because children walking on that side of the street would encounter vehicles dropping off other children at the school.
That crossing will be moved to the east side and marked much more visibly before school starts, Gorham said, thanks to a small grant from the Statewide Health Improvement Program.
“We have a lot more we want to do to this intersection to truly make it safe for crossing students,” Gittemeier added.
In an interview, Ehlinger said the scope of the problems was apparent.
“I was struck by the fact that this is an important part of the city, particularly for kids getting to school, and there is so much work that needs to be done,” Ehlinger said. “But I’m impressed with the motivation of the folks down here to actually try to do something about it.”