State Announces More Taxpayer Funds to Get Kids to Walk or Bike to School

      The taxpayers’ tab for the federal program dedicated solely to getting kids to walk and bike to school keeps on climbing. The Freedom Foundation of Minnesota recently revealed that nearly $1 billion had already been allocated for the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Now the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has announced another round of $768,000 in taxpayer-funded grants dedicated to paving the way for more “walking school buses”, “bike rodeos” and Fire Up Your Feet activities in 92 Minnesota schools.

“These projects will help communities increase opportunities for kids to walk and bike to school,” said MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel in a news release. “More kids walking and biking means less traffic on the road and in front of schools, improving safety and promoting healthier kids.”

MnDOT promotes the program’s “holistic approach" to prodding kids to go to school the old-fashioned way. The Minnesota Department of Health offers a 24-page handbook with guidelines and strategies for walking and biking to class for the 200 or so schools now participating statewide. The Rochester school district’s 33-page manual features an equipment checklist and other accessories for students and parents alike.

Most of the 2012 grants will be spent on planning and evaluation, clearing the way for 70 schools to come back and request even more funding from the feds (via MnDOT) to actually implement their plans. The other 22 grants will be spent on ”education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation activities”. Some examples:

·         McGregor schools were awarded $10,000 for bike rodeos, Fire Up Your Feet and Walk to School Day programs
·          Detroit Lakes schools will receive $5,000 to participate in International Walk to School Day and publicize Bike/Walk to School week and other activities
·         Cook County schools will receive $27,000 to establish a sustainable walking school bus program and expand its bicycle safety rodeo.

This year, however, there’s additional government red tape for grant recipients to deal with. The new requirement follows an embarrassing backlash against a $282,000 grant awarded last year to Goodview, Minnesota. Many residents of the southeastern Minnesota city strongly opposed the idea of the state and federal government taking charge of paving their sidewalks.

“The federal government said we have all kinds of money, let’s give it away. But in reality, we know better than that,” said Greg Gabbert, a Goodview resident who still opposes the project.

Although the Goodview City Council eventually accepted the funding, MnDOT now requires a resolution of support from the local governing body that receives the grant.

Since the inception of SRTS in 2005, more than $11 million of taxpayer funding has been awarded to communities in Minnesota. MnDOT began requiring school surveys last year to track the program’s effectiveness. It’s not yet clear how many, if any, Minnesota school children now walk or bike to school as a result of the $11 million in federal largesse.

Ultimately, the Safe Routes to School program may be subject to the same fate as one of its biggest champions—former Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar. Even though Oberstar was retired by voters in 2010, the cost of the former House Transportation Committee chairman’s legislative legacy continues to add up for taxpayers through programs like SRTS.

In fact, applications are currently being accepted for the 2012 James L. Oberstar Safe Routes to School Award to “honor his dedication to American schoolchildren as the pioneer for the federal Safe Routes to School Program.”

The future of the Oberstar Award may hinge on the outcome of House-Senate conference committee negotiations on the transportation bill. If conservatives in the House of Representatives prevail, SRTS will ultimately go the way of its sponsor and be retired. Senate conferees still hope to salvage the program.

Schools interested in applying for what could be the fourth and last Oberstar honor are also running out of time. The deadline for applications is midnight June 28, 2012.                    

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

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