By Dan Harkins
ORANGE CITY - When he moved to the corner of Birch and Carpenter avenues in 1994, Fred Bonnett didn't have a sidewalk anywhere in sight.
That didn't seem to matter until recent years, he said, when Volusia County built three new schools just around the corner - Manatee Cove Elementary School, River Springs Middle School and University High School.
Since then, Mr. Bonnett has watched an increasing number of young pedestrians taking chances with their lives everyday.
"The kids are just coming up the road now right along with the cars," he said one recent afternoon as he did some landscaping with his grandchildren. "And some of these kids, they don't even get out of the way. To me, that says, 'Hit me.'"
That shouldn't be a problem any longer, now that Volusia County is putting the final touches on a sidewalk along the west side of Carpenter Avenue, from Rhode Island Avenue to where it ends at West Fern Drive.
"It's a good thing," he said. "You didn't know when something bad was gonna happen."
Like at other places nearby. Of the 29 pedestrian accidents experienced by Volusia County students this past school year, 11 of them happened around these three schools, including the death of 16-year-old Brandon Vera in early February.
Mayor Tom Laputka, who's also vice president of a group called Safe Kids of Volusia that sprang up in the wake of Brandon's death, was driving down Carpenter Avenue recently, inspecting the new work.
"We thank the county so much for increasing the safety and walkability in this area," he said.
More sidewalks are in the works too. County Engineer Gerald Brinton said the county is currently negotiating for right of way with seven homeowners on the south side of Blue Spring Avenue, between Scholars Path and Sparkman Avenue. Once that's secured, he said the final missing piece of sidewalk along Blue Spring would also be in place.
Before school starts, he also intends to have a sidewalk installed along a mile-long stretch of New York Avenue, from Sparkman Avenue to Hamilton Avenue - yet another area near the schools where students are made to walk in the dirt or the street.
"I don't think there have been any accidents where a sidewalk would have prevented the accident," he said, "but that doesn't mean they're not needed. We're not going to wait until somebody has an accident that a sidewalk could have prevented, either. We certainly want to make sure we can make this area as safe as possible."
Other changes include the addition of crosswalks, streetlights and warning signs along major thoroughfares. But that hasn't stopped activists like those in Safe Kids from continuing to lobby for a dedicated school zone along U.S. 17-92, near where the three schools are clustered.
April Heller, a local spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation, said a traffic operations engineer is still considering the intersection of 17-92 and Rhode Island Avenue for a school zone.
"It's still under study," she said, "but we do hope to have these improvements in place for the new school year."
Another change that FDOT has already authorized is to make Scholar's Path, leading to River Springs Middle and Manatee Cove Elementary, a one-way road. In addition, the middle school parent pick-up and bus loading areas will be reversed next school year.