Better Walk to School

Santa Fe officials looking at cost for a dedicated trail for students from Cottonwood Village to El Camino Real

Houses line one side of the dirt trail between Cottonwood Village Mobile Home neighborhood and El Camino Real Academy, and the dry Santa Fe River bed presses against the other. On a recent afternoon, a few kids take the first detour off the trail on their way home from school, passing by a graffitied wall marked with, among other things, a swastika.

Another student continues on and heads home a ways up the path, about a 10-minute walk from the school.

It’s a well-worn trail, with many students using it to and from the K-8 school as a faster, on-foot commute than taking the sidewalk along South Meadows Road or having parents drive them, particularly when traffic backs up.

Despite the convenience, many parents feel it isn’t safe for their kids to trudge the trail alone. And they are pushing for funding to pave the path and line it with fencing.

A city advisory committee is working on a report to explore cost estimates that city officials will use to identify funding. Some city officials tell SFR they’re looking for federal money to complete the project—and local nonprofit executives say it should be a priority—but they’re wary of the difficulties involved with securing cash from Washington, DC for these kinds of initiatives.

Byanka Tarango, a teacher at El Camino Real who lives at Cottonwood Village, sometimes takes the path with her son, who’s in third grade, on their way to school. Tarango would prefer the boy not traverse it by himself because she worries about kidnapping and the used syringes that sometimes litter the trail.

Santa Fe Deputy Police Chief Paul Joye reports via email that he isn’t “aware of any calls for service” along the trail. That doesn’t necessarily mean people haven’t called, he writes, only that without a date, report number or name of a caller, he wasn’t able to find any records of calls.

Still, Tarango is relieved she’s able to accompany her son, unlike many other parents.

“I think my son is lucky to have a mom that works there who can walk with him and take care of him, but we have some parents that can’t go with their kids because they have other, younger kids to take care of or they have to work,” Tarango says.

Tarango wants the city to create a paved, fenced-in trail. She says it would ease her mind—not to mention offer some welcome relief in the winter, when the dirt trail gets muddy.

She’s worked at the school for seven years and lived at the mobile home park for about six years.

“I feel kind of upset because I think even though it’s the Southside, it’s still school and we have to protect the students,” Tarango says. “It would be really good to invest in something the kids would use because it’s not going away. It’s something people will continue using for years.”

City Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta—who recently lost reelection to tire shop owner Lee Garcia in District 3, home to Cottonwood Village and El Camino Real—told SFR last month that he is aware of the ways students use the back route and wants to see the city take up the project.

“We’ve got to do a better job of connecting our children to their schools with trails especially here in District 3 and on the Southside,” Abeyta says.

He says federal money for such projects can be hard to come by. So the city may have to find funding itself, with the possibility of getting reimbursed later on.

“It could take a while because sometimes federal grant cycles can be years out or it can take years before you’re eligible, so that may be something we have to bypass as a city and try to fund ourselves if we can,” Abeyta says. “I don’t think we can afford to wait another five or six years.”

Erick Aune, senior planner with the Santa Fe Metropolitan Planning Organization, tells SFR the city, county and Santa Fe Public Schools had a joint meeting in 2018 where they identified the trail as a project that ought to be undertaken.

The city’s Capital Improvements Advisory Committee is working on a preliminary engineering report to provide a cost estimate for the project, which the city will use to identify the best funding sources—for example, a request to the Legislature or, as Abeyta suggested, city money.

There’s not yet a deadline for when the report must be complete, Aune says, but he hopes it’ll be done by early spring.

“The need is so blatant that we’re really committed to trying to make it happen,” Aune says.

Tim Rogers, trails program manager at the nonprofit Santa Fe Conservation Trust, says the trail should be a top priority.

“This has always been one of the routes that’s, to me, the lowest-hanging fruit as far as getting more kids to walk and bike to school,” Rogers tells SFR. “It’s the lowest-hanging fruit in the city as far as I can tell…just in terms of promoting it and getting kids to use it based on the proximity of the subdivision to the school.”

Rogers is also the coordinator of the “Safe Routes to School” initiative, which aims to get more kids walking or biking to school and is being funded by $300,000 in federal grant money over two years.

The trust has a city contract to pilot the program, which it’s doing partly by working with several Southside schools to work bike and pedestrian safety education into the classroom. Rogers says El Camino Real’s physical education classes already incorporate similar lessons.

Pedestrian safety has long been an issue in the city, particularly on the Southside.

In 2014, a crossing guard named Dolores Byers talked with SFR after she was injured running in front of a car that wasn’t slowing down for a girl Byers was trying to help guide across a crosswalk off Airport Road. The crosswalk didn’t have a stoplight or stop sign to urge slower traffic.

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