A small posse of young bikers and at least one pink Hello Kitty helmet swirled into Missoula City Hall on Wednesday and headed straight to the office of the mayor.

The Rattlesnake Elementary School students had an appointment with Mayor John Engen, and he greeted the troop with a question.

"You guys ever been to the mayor's office before? It's way easier than the principal's office," Engen said.

"But the principal's office has a couch," said one youngster.

That exchange concluded the pleasantries, and the bikers and walkers delved into the business at hand: a report to Engen, their mayor and neighbor, of the challenges they face trying to safely walk and bike to school.

Clayton Polanchek, 8, rides his bike and walks in the neighborhood, headed for either school or the home of a friend. He keeps away from cars, but avoiding them means he takes a circuitous route.

"Instead of going the shorter way, I have to go on a really long path," Clayton said.

On some trips, he doesn't have sidewalks one-quarter or half the way. Some of the streets he uses aren't easy to cross, either.

"It's really rough," Clayton told the mayor.

Clayton and the rest of the team of 10 or so children who biked to City Hall then turned over the presentation to their adult spokeswoman, Caroline Lonski. Lonski, the parent of a Rattlesnake Elementary child and one of the adult bikers on the trip, had gathered cold hard data - as well as some color crayon drawings - into a thick binder for the mayor.

"We have 219 letters from kids of Rattlesnake Elementary," Lonski said.

The letters asked for safe ways to get to school, and the binder included data to back up the need. It came from second- through fifth-graders.

***

Here's one discovery: Almost one in four of the children who occasionally walk or bike to school from neighborhoods north of Creek Crossing and east of Lincolnwood have no sidewalks at all until south of Creek Crossing, according to the Rattlesnake research.

The binder included copies of city maps showing walk-to-school routes. Children traced in crayon their own walk to school, but that's not all the maps showed. They marked trouble spots where sidewalks are missing and children share the road with vehicles going 45 mph, Lonski said.

"Every single danger spot with the exception of one falls directly on the ‘walk to school' routes," she said.

Mayor Engen listened and asked questions as six little people squeezed onto the big dark couch in his office. When citizens bring him problems, Engen said he asks them to suggest solutions.

He said he understands the need for sidewalks in the Rattlesnake, an area once considered a more rural part of Missoula. He also sees a challenge in the transition to an urban environment.

"Today, it's a city neighborhood, and if we're going to have city infrastructure, how do we foot the bill?" Engen said.

Lonski asked whether federal funding might be available, or if a citywide bond might work. The meeting lasted less than 30 minutes, with more conversation sure to take place ahead.

In the meantime, the mayor put a suggestion to the row of bright, upturned faces in his office.

"I'm recommending everyone take the rest of the day off," Engen said.

Soraya Kiely, almost 3, looked to be one rosy step ahead of him. Soraya, a frequent passenger in a bicycle Chariot, had already kicked off a pair of pink sandals onto the floor and tucked herself into the couch.

After she and the others departed the mayor's office, a riotous game of tag ensued outside City Hall.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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