When the first day of the new year for traditional schools wraps up Monday, two dozen or so youths will hoof it up Shepard School Road, from Zebulon Middle School, across the bridge over U.S. 64/264, en route to the Zebulon Boys & Girls Club.
Thanks to the completion of the first of two phases of a sidewalk improvement project, the club’s young members will make the trek under much safer conditions than they once were exposed to along that stretch.
“When it was built, they understood ‘OK, this feels more safe,’” ZBGC Director Jason Jones said of the club’s reaction to the bridge and sidewalk upgrades. “I heard conversation about how it feels safer and they feel more confident walking across the bridge.”
The safer feel comes for good reason.
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Previously, there was a mere dirt path formed by those who walked to the club from Zebulon Middle School and the surrounding communities south of the highway. The path was a matter of a few feet off the side of Shepard School Road on either side of the bridge.
The bridge had no protective fencing or designated walking space, so crossing it on foot meant walking on a narrow shoulder sandwiched between a lane of traffic and a concrete barrier.
“In the past, we were wary about the bridge,” Jones said. He said club staff would regularly walk to the middle school to safely usher members back to the club.
The town originally pursued a sidewalk for the entire 1,810-foot stretch between the school and club but was forced to change gears after the lowest of two construction bids came in over budget in August, 2014. That was just one of several setbacks the town faced since planning first began on the project in June, 2012.
Town leaders eventually decided to break the project into two phases, identifying a 1,000-foot section from the club across the bridge as the top priority.
“We felt like the northern portion was a little narrower, so it made better sense to put a sidewalk up there first,” Zebulon Public Works Director Chris Ray said in October 2014, when contractors approved the reduced scope of the project. “On the southern end, residents and school kids can (walk) further away from the road.”
The work completed Feb. 13 with a construction price tag of $324,662 alleviated much anxiety over the northern stretch. It included a guardrail and fencing across the bridge and sidewalk with curb, gutter and storm drainage from the bridge to the club.
“I go home that way and see kids walking on it and there’s a tremendous sense of pride knowing they are in a safer place,” Ray said Friday. “We’ve got a great amount of comments from the public out there that is beneficial, and we are extremely happy.”
If Jones gets his way, the sidewalk could see an increase in use in the near future. The club of 710 members, which averages about 150 in daily attendance during the school year, has a current goal of reaching the 800-member mark.
That makes the second phase of the sidewalk project that much more important. The remaining stretch, from the bridge to the middle school, is listed as one of the town’s capital projects for the 2017 fiscal year. Ray said the town will apply for grant funding to help complete the second phase, like it did for the first wave of work, and that construction could begin as early as November, 2016.
“It means a lot to us that (town leaders) have the kids’ best interest and safety in mind,” Jones said. “We definitely appreciate them doing that for us. We’re big on safety, not just for our kids but for all the kids in the community.”