One More Push Can Preserve Federal Safe Routes to School Funding

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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.

Deb Hubsmith, director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. Photo: Carolyn Szczepanski

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.

8 thoughts on One More Push Can Preserve Federal Safe Routes to School Funding

  1. A great program.  But a top priority for the Transportation Department?  I don’t think so.  I  would rather have this money go to mass transit.

    As the article stated, there are many potential sources of non-profit funding for safe routes to school.  We just need to write the grants and win that money.  In addition, if properly informed, voters inlocal communities would be able to connect the dots and pass bonds to help their children and their neighbors’ children get to school safely by foot or bike.  We can continue to make this happen, but through thousands of local initiatives.

    The same approach would not be successful to raise the massive funds for less popular in -city and intercity rail and bus programs.  There’s a prejudice against poor transit users (e.g. in Scott Walker’s defunding of Wisconsin transit).  In contrast, the safe routes to school program has a natural constituency that we can mobilize for other sources of public and private funding.

    Let’s concentrate our dwindling federal transportation dollars on less popular, harder to fundraise for, mass transit projects.

  2. This is a fantastic article….next week in the same city, another program is on the chopping block – National Scenic Byway Program.  FHWA just awarded several million in discretionary grants for scenic byways across the nation.  Their conference is August 21 to 25 in Minneapolis. 

  3. @ icarus12,    Ha, ha. That’s a good one. Shift money from a program that receives 0.25% of federal funding to one that receives 10-20%. You kill me*.  

    * Well, not me, actually, but a few kids here and there.

  4. @icarus12: Done right, I think, the two should work well together. For instance, if there’s a safe walking route connecting a housing and a school, it can also be used by bus riders.

  5. At Clutch J,
    Your comment, implying that I would kill children, is deplorable.  But it is typical of those who would squelch meaningful policy debate or condemn those making hard funding choices, by painting their opponents as enemies of children.  Thanks for playing the demagogue.  Did it make you feel clever?

    Just a couple of articles further down the roll in Streetsblog is Angie Schmitt’s report on how difficult the funding situation is going to be for transportation agencies throughout the country.  Here’s the link:

    With government money extremely scarce, I am simply arguing that we should focus our private and non-profit fundraising efforts on projects that appeal to the heart.  Children getting safely to school is one such heartstrings issue, so let’s drum up financial support for safe routes to schools.  I would be the first to donate money to such a cause.

    But until we get out of the recession-related budget emergency, let’s focus those federal dollars on other transportation needs (many of which might also really help poor children using the bus, or children using bike routes) that traditionally don’t get widespread support.

    Like I said, hard choices.

  6. Lighten up, Francis. I didn’t mean that you would literally want to kill kids, only that your policy recommendation would end up killing kids (your lovely rationalizations aside). I love public transit–my family uses it almost daily–but if public transit advocates seek to bolster their budgets at the expense of Safe Routes to School, watch out, because you’ll have a huge fight– not to mention blood– on your hands. Take care.

  7. At some point all of us are going to have to make some difficult fiscal choices about what programs to entrust to government and what to do in alternative ways.  Maybe Safe Routes to Schools is as crucial as bus routes or fire protection.  It doesn’t seem so to me, but I’m not going to make that my last stand.  These are exactly the kinds of debates we citizens have to pursue, so that we get the kinds of programs that have the most support or at least are protected Constitutionally.  Maybe we’ll finally go back to taxing ourselves at higher rates, and I mean all of the middle class, not just the millionaires.  Or maybe we will do some paring back of government expenses, programs, pensions, etc.  It will be a bumpy ride, I’m sure, whatever we do.

  8. I love the theory of Safe Routes to Schools – don’t appreciate when they aid a commuter school in forcing concrete on a street – against the desires of residents  – and waste a million dollars in the process.

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