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North Carolina Tries to Deflect Blame for Coming Demise of “Safe Routes” Program

Photo: North Carolina SRTS

North Carolina’s Department of Transportation is trying to blame everyone else — including Streetsblog! — for its decision to end a popular program that helped 66,000 kids walk and bike to school safely."

After we reported last week that the state had ended its Active Routes to School program, North Carolina DOT released an "open letter" [PDF] "to correct the inaccurate information contained in a recent blog post" (hello!) and to blame federal officials and North Carolina state law for the demise of the safety program.

But national Safe Routes officials confirm that North Carolina is to blame, as the state need only be more creative about the way it structured and funded the program. Margo Pedroso, at the National Partnership for Safe Routes to School, says changes in federal law — not even very recent now — have made administering the program statewide slightly more complicated for states.

The last two federal transportation bills — MAP-21 and the FAST Act — were cited by NCDOT in its open letter as an excuse for ending the program. North Carolina had funded the $6 million Active Routes to School program with 100 percent federal money through this year.

But the funding NCDOT used was left over from a few years ago. MAP-21, which passed in 2012, did away with dedicated funds for Safe Routes to School. Instead Congress decided to send states a portion of $850 million in "Transportation Alternatives" funding, which could be used for biking and walking projects, including Safe Routes to School.

Funding Safe Routes to School now requires a 20 percent local or state match — but NCDOT has declined to pony up its portion of the cash. It its "open letter," North Carolina DOT blamed its own state law, a 2013 provision called the "Strategic Transportation Investment" Act: "Funds are awarded through a competitive call for infrastructure projects on a two-year cycle. There are no provisions in the law for ongoing programmatic funding," the agency said.

The law is indeed a burden, according to Pedroso, not it's not insurmountable. Indeed, the National Partnership gave North Carolina decent grades for how it was performing on Safe Routes to School in 2018. But the state got 0 out of 15 points in three subcategories related to how the program is funded.

The low score resulted because the state forfeited $4 million in TAP funds last year by failing to award them before the four-year deadline. As of June this year, North Carolina had $7.5 million in unspent TAP funds that were set to expire if they weren't spent by September, Pedroso said.

Hanna Cockburn, the DOT’s director of the bike and pedestrian division, told Streetsblog that now only $2 million remains and that she is confident that it will be spent by the deadline.

But Pedroso said the state is in danger of forfeiting the funds again.

"I believe they’re trying to fix this stuff," she said. "There is an intent to do better, but there are a lot of institutional and state law barriers."
North Carolina officials say they're still trying to find a way to save the program.

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