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Getting Rural Kids Walking and Biking: A Case Study From Northeast Iowa

This post is part of a series featuring stories and research that will be presented at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference September 8-11 in Pittsburgh.

Nationally, more than 14,000 schools have taken part in Safe Routes to School programs. Though dedicated federal funding was stripped out in the current transportation law, SRTS funds have helped improve sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, and other infrastructure near schools, as well as education and enforcement. However, most SRTS projects are in urban and suburban settings. Rural areas have their own distinct challenges when it comes to walking and biking.

Six counties in Northeast Iowa benefit from an unprecedented push for Safe Routes to School. Image: ##http://uerpc.org/uploads/PDF_File_64511658.pdf##UERPC##

Six counties in Northeast Iowa participated in the push for Safe Routes to School. Photo: UERPC

One rural region is trying to overcome those challenges. Ashley Christensen, the regional SRTS liaison for a six-county area in northeastern Iowa known as Upper Explorerland, says that when the state DOT and the non-profit Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative started the region’s Safe Routes program in 2008, there was no information out there with guidance about how to build a SRTS program in a rural setting.

“We know no other region in Iowa had worked on one when we started and are pretty confident that statement holds true for the rest of the U.S., too,” Christensen told Streetsblog.

With distances between home and school far longer than in urban areas and safe walking infrastructure far less common, Upper Explorerland’s SRTS program had its work cut out for it. “Rural areas typically do not have the sidewalks, crosswalks, etc. that urban settings do, so SRTS work in a rural setting has the unique challenge — or opportunity, as I like to think of it — of utilizing what is available and advocating for more pedestrian accommodations,” Christensen said.

The Northeast Iowa schools do similar activities to other Safe Routes locations: walking school buses and bicycle trains chaperoned by parents; bike rodeos to teach bicycle safety and road skills. But they also use techniques that might not be needed in denser areas, like remote drop-offs. A remote drop-off functions like a park-and-ride, where parents meet in a parking lot and walk their kids the rest of the way to school. All told, the programs reach 10,000 students from 20 school districts and six private schools in a rural area the size of Connecticut.

While some of the schools in the Upper Explorerland SRTS jurisdiction are located in walkable communities, others are “located along major highways in the middle of a cornfield, miles away from the nearest community,” Christensen reports.

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Study: Bicycling Generates $365 Million in Economic Activity in Iowa

About $1 million per day, or $365 million per year –  that’s how valuable the cycling industry is in Iowa, according to a new study by University of Northern Iowa.

The Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) is a major event in Iowa promoting cycling. A new study says those types of investments are paying big returns in this rural state. Photo: RAGBRAI

That’s not all. According to the study, about $74 million in health care costs are saved in Iowa annually thanks to recreational cycling activity. Commuter cyclists prevent another $13 million in avoidable healthcare spending.

In addition, about $21 million in sales tax revenues are generated for Iowa through the cycling industry, the study found.

Wow. Even the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, sponsors of the study, were surprised by just how much money cycling brings to this sparsely populated, rural state.

“The return on investment was much larger than expected,” said Mark Wyatt, executive director of the organization.

Iowa spent about $3 million on trails last year and is planning to spend about $2.5 million this year. But the Iowa Bicycling coalition is pushing for the full $3 million.

It’s needed, according to the study. Researchers found that 66 percent of Iowans would bicycle more if there were better facilities. That could have a big impact on the 67 percent of Iowa’s adults who are overweight or obese.

“We know a lot of Iowans have bicycles, but may not have ridden them in some time,” said Wyatt. “More opportunities for Iowans to bicycle will help Iowa become the healthiest state.”

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State Transpo Officials Push to Toll for Maintenance, Not Just Capacity

Last week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told state DOT officials gathered at an AASHTO conference in Washington that he was all in favor of tolling – but only to add new capacity.

Iowa DOT Director Nancy Richardson says her state should be putting all of its funds toward stewardship. Photo: Iowa DOT

“We believe in tolling,” LaHood said. “You can raise a lot of money with tolls. If a state comes to us with good plans for tolling, yes, we’ll be responsive to that… as long as you’re building more capacity. That’s really what we’re going to look at.”

As state transportation officials struggle with state of good repair, they are beginning to chafe at the federal restriction that allows tolling only for new capacity – not maintenance or other needs.

“The argument always is, we shouldn’t toll for reconstruction because we’ve already paid for them once,” said Iowa DOT Director Nancy Richardson in an interview with Streetsblog. “But we’ve paid for them and we’ve used that value. Now it’s time to reinvest.”

She says maintenance, or “stewardship”, is a much higher priority for her state than capacity — to the point where she considers spending all of her funds on stewardship.

We probably have about 75 percent of our money going to that now. But our system has taken such a beating in the last five years because the weather has been so dramatic – both winters and flooding – so we’ve seen accelerated deterioration and costs over the past five or six years, without revenues going up significantly. Our bang for the buck is less. So we have to look, like all states, to see if we have to almost completely shift our funds to maintenance, or stewardship, as we call it, rather than capacity.

Secretary LaHood admitted, when asked, that the Federal Highway Administration had rejected tolls for Pennsylvania’s I-80 because the tolls were going to be used for “other things” besides new capacity.

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Heads Up, Tom Latham: Livability Pays Big Dividends in Rural Iowa

You could say Oskaloosa, Iowa, population 11,000, is a model of small-town livability. Families rent apartments over renovated historic storefronts. Local college students take the bike lane down Market Street to grab a bite in the local restaurants. Visitors travel from distant towns to browse the city’s local bookstore in its revitalized, walkable town square.

Oskaloosa’s vibrancy is owed in large part to Iowa’s Main Street program — a public-private partnership aimed at returning economic competitiveness to historic town centers. Over its 25 year history in the state, this program has encouraged walkability, mixed use development and historic preservation in 47 Iowa communities.

Oskaloosa residents enjoy an event in the town' revitalized downtown. Oskaloosa is one dozens of Iowa towns to have benefitted from the state's Main Street Program, helping advance rural livability. Photo: ##http://blog.preservationnation.org/category/general/main-street/page/2/## National Trust for Historic Preservation##

Oskaloosa residents enjoy an event in the town's revitalized downtown. Oskaloosa is one dozens of small Iowa towns to have benefited from the state's Main Street program. Photo: National Trust for Historic Preservation

To those who question whether the concept of livability works in rural communities, the answer from Oskaloosa and the Iowa Main Street program is self-evident. The Main Street effort has been credited with attracting $1 billion dollars in private investment — about $79 private dollars for every public dollar — according to an economic analysis commissioned by the program. Hardly an exclusive domain of the Hawkeye State, Main Street is a national program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation — at work in 37 states.

However, some key Republicans have threatened to dismantle efforts to bring these kinds of common-sense investments to communities around the country.

Indeed, Iowa Congressman Tom Latham, whose district is just a few miles from Oskaloosa, is chair of the powerful Transportation and HUD Subcommittee on Appropriations. Latham has questioned whether the concept of “livability” applies in rural communities. And others in the Republican leadership have threatened to cut funding for President Obama’s Sustainable Communities Regional Planning program and TIGER grants, efforts that aim to bring important economic and quality-of-life improvements — as well as overall infrastructure cost savings — to both rural and urban areas.

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The Power of the Pursestrings Shifts to a Livability Denier in the House

The transfer of power in the House of Representatives gives transportation reformers plenty to wring their hands about. Oberstar’s ouster was a shock, and folks are still synthesizing what it means to have John Mica in charge of the next transportation bill.

Tom Latham is poised to take the helm of the Transportation and HUD Appropriations Subcommittee - and that could be bad news for livability advocates. Image: ##http://theiowarepublican.com/home/##The Iowa Republican##

Tom Latham is poised to take the helm of the Transportation and HUD Appropriations Subcommittee - and that could be bad news for livability advocates. Image: The Iowa Republican

But flying under the radar is another big shift with potentially enormous consequences. The Transportation and HUD subcommittee on Appropriations is getting a new master too. And livability advocates are alarmed.

Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA) made it onto the League of American Bicyclists’ Trash Talk list this spring when he said every biker is “one less person paying into the transportation trust fund.”

The Final Say on Transpo Funding

If Latham is confirmed as the new chair of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, he’ll have the power of the pursestrings. After all, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee can authorize any program they want, but if the appropriators don’t fund it, it doesn’t exist.

Latham is a close personal friend of presumptive Speaker John Boehner, who opposes Obama’s infrastructure push and believes he has a mandate to cut government spending. We’ve already heard that Mica wants to revisit discretionary grant programs like TIGER and the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning program, and advocates are bracing for a fight to preserve bike-ped funding.

But the fight won’t be won in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee alone – it’ll continue in Appropriations, where advocates will need to convince a fiscal conservative with little to no understanding of the need for walkability, smart growth, or urban transit. He’s made it clear that his priority in the subcommittee is “the efficient movement of agricultural products” on rural roads and “the importance of maintaining the vast road structures that we have today in rural America.”

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