By JAIME STUDD
Recorder News Staff
FONDA -- Earlier this month, the village of Fonda received word this its application for a New York Department of Transportation Safe Routes to School grant had been denied.
Though any substantial reasons for the denial were absent from the official notice, Fonda Mayor Bill Peeler said a DOT official did supply the village with a list the problematic aspects of its proposal in a subsequent e-mail.
"Basically they said they were concerned with the safety of the roadway," Peeler said.
The problem, Peeler said, is that he does not believe any of the reasons provided to be justified and that he is more inclined to believe that the denial has little to do with the actual application and everything to do with the village officials' very public opposition to the DOT's efforts to permanently close the Broadway and Center Street railroad crossings.
"I don't know if there's politics involved or what, but us not getting our safe school grant was ridiculous," Peeler said. "We are picture-perfect for that grant and I can't help but think that that's a payback. It's in the back of my mind. It has to be."
The Safe Routes to School Program provides up to $500,000 in funding for infrastructure improvements within a two-mile radius of an elementary or middle school that will making walking to school a safer and healthier alternative to riding the bus or being driven.
Examples of infrastructure improvements that would qualify for funding include the installation of traffic signals and crosswalks, sidewalk repairs and initiatives aimed at mitigating traffic.
Funding is also available for non-infrastructure related projects like public education and outreach programs that highlight the benefits of walking or biking to school.
The village was originally seeking all of the $500,000 available, proposing a plan that included the installation of new sidewalks, curbing, lighting and drainage.
The new infrastructure was intended to run up North Center Street and down Upper Prospect where it would have joined with Cemetery Road. The safety improvements would have continued through the school parking lot where the route would meet the sidewalks that run along the tennis courts.
After state officials advised the village and school district, who were collaborating on the application, that the chances of actually being awarded the grant would likely increase with a less extensive project list, however, the application was scaled back to include only the improvements to Cemetery Street area, minus the decorative lighting originally proposed.
Peeler had said he also hoped to be able to use some of the funding to purchase and install cameras in the area of the school as a method of speed enforcement.
Though the DOT has consistently emphasized the potential for a reduction in vehicular traffic as one of the grant's primary goals, village officials had said they were more concerned with ensuring that students who chose to walk to school could do so safely.
Peeler had also hoped the improvements would mark the beginning of a planned village-wide revitalization effort.
The program itself is federally funded, but administered by the NYS DOT. On Jan. 4, the DOT announced that 64 grants had been awarded this year, totaling $26.5 million.
Fonda was not among them. The village of St. Johnsville, however, was, adding fuel to Peeler's theory that the denial may have been an intentional slight because it is that area's second such award.
In 2008, St. Johnsville Central School District received more than $122,000 in Safe Routes to School funding.
"St. Johnsville got an additional $200,000, which, that's all we were asking for. That would have taken care of a lot of our needs," Peeler said. "That's why it brought me to the possible conclusion that this was a political thing."
In the e-mail, Peeler said the DOT official did cite some specific reasons for the denial, including "difficulty in achieving five foot buffer between edge of pavement and the sidewalk, inadequate sight distance for crossing on Cemetery Street/Upper Prospect Street" and "right away documentation was vague and incomplete."
"That's ridiculous," Peeler said of the latter part.
Peeler said the e-mail also indicated that the grant was denied because ineligible items such as benches and trash receptacles were included in the proposals, but warning lights and flashing beacons were not.
"That's absolutely not true," Peeler said. "We included that as well."
Peeler also said the DOT cited the route the village outlined for pedestrian travel, which would have taken students in the vicinity of the Caughnawaga Cemetery, as posing a potential hazard to a historic site.