Between National Bike Month and the current campaign to let state transportation leaders know that Safe Routes to School projects should be a priority, you’ve undoubtedly heard a lot this month about Safe Routes to School programs and funding. Not everyone is as familiar with these issues, so this month the Inside Track sat down with PreventObesity.net Leader Margo Pedroso, deputy director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, to learn more.
According to the National Partnership, more than 25 percent of all children’s traffic deaths happen when kids are walking or bicycling. Safe Routes to School programs help ensure that active transportation infrastructure – bike lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks, for example – are present in the community. Such projects have been shown to reduce child pedestrian injuries by 44 percent, and increase walking and bicycling to school by 37 percent.
Hi Margo, thanks for taking time to speak with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about what you do?
As deputy director of the National Partnership, I work on federal policy. I’m the one that goes up to the Hill and advocates for specific funding for Safe Routes to School programs. I also work with the US Department of Transportation on policies and initiatives that can benefit communities across the country. I keep track of state implementation of federal funding, and keep an ear open for stories about who is doing well, lessons learned, and things to expect. A little bit of my time is also spent on fundraising, strategic planning and internal operations of the organization.
What’s the status of the current transportation legislation?
The current transportation bill (the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21) was set to expire in May; Congress just extended it through the end of July. We are asking Congress to pass a long-term transportation bill that includes the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP). TAP provides more than $800 million each year for Safe Routes to School, bicycling and walking, and other projects that will make it safer to walk and bicycle. Additionally, Congress will need to identify a funding source, since the federal gas tax no longer brings in enough revenue to support current transportation spending.
I know you’re working on the Transportation Alternatives bill. What is that?
Senators Cochran (R-MS) and Cardin (D-MD) recently introduced the Transportation Alternatives Program Improvement Act, S. 705. This legislation would strengthen TAP, and restore funds cut in 2012. We’ve been sifting through information from the field about how TAP could work better, any barriers people are running into and what people need for implementation, and have been able to identify a few key elements. After that, we met with Senators Cochran and Cardin to explain our recommendations, and engaged with key committee members around strategy. Together, we made the decision to introduce the improvements as legislation.
What is the status of S. 705 now?
The bill has been introduced in the Senate. Right now, we’re coordinating outreach strategy with other grassroots advocates and encouraging other Senators to co-sponsor the bill. We’re scheduling meetings with members of the transportation committee as well. We don’t expect the legislation to pass as a stand-alone bill; instead it gives us solid language and priorities that we hope will be included in the larger transportation bill.
What are some of the changes this legislation would bring?
Currently, nonprofits aren’t actually eligible to apply directly for funding for Safe Routes to School programs; they can only be a partner with someone else who is applying. This legislation would make nonprofits eligible, which means there would be more organizations and manpower behind Safe Routes to School projects. It’s a small change, but will make a big difference at the local level.
Under TAP in the last transportation bill, we made a big push to give more of decision-making to the local level. The idea is that state departments of transportation can’t possibly know all the needs of all every city or region in their state. And often, local cities or regions have different priorities than state in general. A portion of funding and the decision-making process for TAP was given to metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), which are regional transportation planning entities. This has been really valuable, so the Senate bill would increase the amount of money that is decided by the MPOs. It will make sure better projects get chosen that are more in line with regional priorities.
The bill also restores prior funding cuts. When Congress created TAP in 2012, they cut funding by 30 percent, so this legislation calls for the restoration of that funding—about a $400 million increase. For context, that is a tiny fraction of the $50 billion per year transportation bill.
Have you run into any challenges or opposition to your work?
When it comes to Congress, generally people aren’t opposed to Safe Routes to School programs as a concept. But when it’s in a transportation bill with a lack of funding, what you often hear is discussion about priorities. There are some members that feel that, given limited resources, we should focus on the federal role in transportation. And, for them that means roads or freight to connect states, but not what they consider local projects: biking, walking and transit. That kind of opposition can lead to cutbacks in funding, which we fight against.
At the local level, it is often students and our seniors that need sidewalks and safer street crossings. While not everyone wants sidewalks, Safe Routes to School can help reframe the issue to the needs of the community and the health and safety of children, which encourages understanding.
What other National Partnership programs are you most excited about?
Our Fire Up Your Feet program is a way to get kids, families and school staff more active. It runs during the school year, and parents, kids and school staff keep track of their minutes of physical activity. Twice a year, schools compete to max out the number of participants and minutes, and can win cash prizes toward making their school wellness environment better. So far this program is only in selected areas, but we hope to make it national.
In addition to the physical activity, schools and families get resources about how to maximize physical activity and learn how to do a walkability audit or complete streets policy. And kids start to notice a lack of built environment and want to make changes in their community. It’s an exciting way to get families more active!
What do you think is the National Partnership’s biggest win in the childhood obesity prevention movement so far?
Definitely creating the Safe Routes to School program. It got departments of transportation to think about not just infrastructure, but teaching kids safety and healthy habits and making parents comfortable—it was groundbreaking. And it also brought all kinds of new players into the movement and is pushing state departments of transportation to focus on the needs of everyone, not just drivers.
What’s next for the National Partnership?
We are just coming to the last year of our current strategic plan, and are going to be starting the process to develop new plan. We’re considering a focus on places that are “behind the curve,” where the most help is needed. For example, in the South there is a census region where only 3 percent of kids walk to school. The national average is 13 percent, so they are significantly below.
Often, those states in the South are much more likely to transfer TAP funds out of active transportation, and some of their policies are making it even harder for those who want to walk and bike more. When you look at advocacy groups on ground, there aren’t as many as in other states or they are under-resourced, so their ability to make change is hampered. We have a lot more to look at as we plan for the future.
Any final thoughts?
Some of the bigger cities like DC (where I live) are making changes and attracting young people – we’ve got things like bikeshare now – as do 90 other cities across the country. Millennials are driving significantly less and demanding options for walking, biking and transit. We need to think about how we can impact other cities and towns, so they can see the benefits of active transportation that many are already seeing. If other cities with low rates of walking and biking don’t start making changes, they could get left even further behind.
If you’d like to know more about Safe Routes to School or the National Partnership’s work, you can contact Margo through her PreventObesity.net Leader profile.