Big Cuts for Government Program to Get Kids to Walk and Bike to School

A billion dollar government program to get kids to walk and bike to school that was the focus of a Freedom Foundation of Minnesota (FFM) investigation faces sharp funding cuts in the 2012 federal transportation legislation signed into law by President Obama last week.

Advocates for the federal Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program released a statement calling the legislation “a major step backwards” because “bicycling and walking programs suffer large and disproportionate cuts in funding”. Supporters of the program estimate that funding cuts could be in excess of 60 to 70 percent of previous year’s appropriations.

“Safe Routes to School (SRTS) is a national and international movement to create safe, convenient, and fun opportunities for children to bicycle and walk to and from schools. The program has been designed to reverse the decline in children walking and bicycling to schools…reversing the alarming nationwide trend toward childhood obesity and inactivity,” according to the program’s website.

In May, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), which oversees the 100 percent federally funded program in Minnesota, announced another $768,000 in SRTS grants to 92 Minnesota schools. Altogether, the state of Minnesota has been allocated a total of $17.8 million through fiscal year 2012 to support activities like walking school buses and bike rodeos, as well as sidewalks and other structural projects.

Examples of SRTS spending revealed by FFM include:
o A 24 page state handbook with guidelines and strategies for walking and biking to school.
o $35,000 for two mobile speed monitors in St. Louis County.
o $80,000 for driver feedback, a traffic calming and walking school bus project in Rochester.
o $282,000 for city sidewalks despite vocal public opposition in Goodview.

The 2012 transportation bill eliminates special funding for the Safe Routes program, forcing SRTS to compete with several other “Transportation Alternatives” programs. All told those transportation projects will receive 33 percent less funding than in previous years. Moreover, the law allows states to opt-out and redirect existing funding, potentially gutting SRTS and other biking and walking programs in some states.

“The state opt-out provision is a major blow to funding levels. A state that chooses to opt out can use this funding for any program with no additional restrictions. Even a state DOT that cares about biking and walking may be tempted to have unrestricted funding for highway uses,” according to an analysis by the advocacy group America Bikes.

MnDOT did not respond to FFM inquiries regarding the impact of the changes and funding cuts to SRTS at the time of this posting. The impact may vary widely from state to state depending on the transportation priorities set by policy makers. Nationally, Safe Routes to School proponents clearly foresee trouble on the way.

“We will all need to work together to encourage state departments of transportation to use all of their Transportation Alternatives money, rather than opting out of half of it, and we will need to work with local jurisdictions to get them to propose Safe Routes to School projects,” writes Margo Pergroso, SRTS National Partnership deputy director. “Keep your head up, keep fighting and keep presenting the vision and need for a positive future where kids can walk and bicycle safely to school and in daily life.”

Meantime, there’s no word yet on whether the anticipated funding reductions will affect the future of the James L. Oberstar Safe Routes to School Award. The Oberstar Award is given annually to “honor his dedication to American schoolchildren as the pioneer for the federal Safe Routes to School Program.” SRTS officials are looking into FFM’s inquiry on whether the award will continue to be designated annually or face retirement like its namesake.

                                        Tips or comments? Contact Tom Steward at 612-354-2192.

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