This week, the Safe Routes to School National Conference convenes in Minneapolis, a progressive city determined to become the most bicycle friendly in the nation. But even here, far from the nation’s capital, in a region celebrated for its massive greenway system, drama inside the Beltway has instilled an air of urgency to the event.
In 2005, SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act) created the federal Safe Routes to School program to get more kids to bike and walk to school by improving infrastructure and creating encouragement programs that make those active trips safe and appealing. The funding for the program is but a tiny drop in the mammoth transportation budget — a mere 0.25 percent of federal transportation spending. But those dollars have been a crucial foundation in building a wide and growing movement.
As is the case for so many progressive programs, though, there’s a very real threat that the well of dedicated dollars for Safe Routes to School could dry up in the next transportation bill. That was apparent from the opening moments of the biennial gathering.
Deb Hubsmith, the director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and a key player in developing and advancing “Safe Routes” nationwide, appealed to a huge crowd of more than 600 participants for three things: courage, faith and immediate action.
“As you know, we have some challenges,” she said. “Some people might be discouraged by what they’ve heard about Congress and the federal debt. The transportation bill is up for reauthorization and there’s fighting about what will happen with the future. Some say Safe Routes to School is not a federal priority.”
“In the face of this discussion right now, we need to have courage,” she added. “We need to know that some of the best outcomes come from challenges in front of us. When something is at risk it creates an opportunity; do we want to go backwards or have a future with healthy kids and healthy communities.”
The Obama administration seemingly showed its support for that healthy future by dispatching Victor Mendez, the administrator of the Federal Highway Administration. In his keynote appearance, Mendez not only highlighted the success of the program but indicated a need for more dollars.
“Since the program started in 2005, we’ve made more than $900 million available to the states and DC for Safe Routes to School programs,” he said. “All 50 states have funded projects and… the total national program is oversubscribed in terms of need. Maybe 40 percent of all applications actually get funded, which means we need to do a little bit of work in that regard.”
New data, just released by the National Center for Safe Routes to School (the government clearinghouse for SRTS data and technical assistance), shows those in-demand dollars are having a wide impact. As of June, funding has reached 11,371 individual schools and, perhaps more importantly, it hasn’t bypassed the nation’s most vulnerable children.
According to the analysis, while 21 percent of the nation’s schools are defined as low-income, 23 percent of the schools announced for SRTS funding fall into that category. In addition, projects with a specific focus on the inclusion of children with disabilities have been funded in 17 states and Native American children on tribal lands have been the focus of projects in seven states.
When asked by an audience member the best means to convince Congress members to maintain those important dollars in the next bill, Mendez said he couldn’t tell Safe Routes believers to lobby their elected officials. But another big name from Washington — James Corless, director of Transportation for America — did just that in a later session. “One thing I know is that, if none of you in this room work on these things, get active and engaged, we could lose Safe Routes and dedicated bike-ped funding,” he said. “There are just too many things pulling in that direction.”
Safe Routes supporters are already warmed up to flex their political muscle. When Rep. John Mica (R-FL) released an outline for the House transportation bill that didn’t include dedicated funding for biking and walking, more than 60,000 citizens flooded their members of Congress to demand those dedicated dollars. Both Corless and Hubsmith emphasized another, even bigger, uprising has the potential to preserve the Safe Routes program.
Still, the uncertainty has sparked discussions about how to continue the Safe Routes momentum even if Congress pares back, or eliminates, dedicated funding. Some advocates are leveraging private funding from major foundations, community grants and corporate supporters. Others are looking to the health arena, including hospitals, insurance providers, or public health departments with local- or state-funded programs that dovetail with Safe Routes objectives. Local ballot initiatives and bond measures could be a source of new dollars, too, given the successful track record in funding progressive issues in states like California.
But Hubsmith, in her remarks, didn’t even go there.
“We’ve faced these challenges before,” she said. “In 1997, there was talk about killing the Transportation Enhancements program. In 2003, there was another move to kill TE… We need to have faith. As Martin Luther King Jr said, ‘Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.’ We need to have courage. When we have courage and faith, we can win.”
Carolyn Szczepanski is communications coordinator at the Alliance for Biking & Walking.