Fewer kids walk and bike to school now than at any time in the nation’s history, due primarily to safety concerns and distances from schools. Not only has that had a negative impact on the long-term health of students and their ability to develop lifelong, healthy habits, but it also means that they are less prepared for a day of learning.
Health and school advocates in Minnesota set out to change this trend by creating a Safe Routes to School (SRTS) funding program in that state to help make up for existing shortfalls in funding from the federal program. SRTS helps communities make it safer for students to walk and bike to school by providing dollars for planning and infrastructure improvements such as safer street crossings and bike trails.
The program is so popular in Minnesota that yearly funding requests have outstripped available federal dollars by as much as 5 to 1. Knowing they faced an uphill battle due to competing funding interests and a significant state budget shortfall, the advocates created a powerful, broad-based coalition.
The coalition included nearly 40 organizations, ranging from health groups to bicycle coalitions to school organizations. The coalition proved to be a strong voice and a powerful presence, and as a result, in 2012 the Minnesota Legislature established a state-based SRTS program, but did not fund it due to the state budget shortfall.
The coalition returned in 2013, backing legislation to fund the program, and with bipartisan support the Legislature provided $500,000 over two years for non-infrastructure SRTS needs, such as planning, mapping and training. The coalition returned to the legislation in 2014 to secure even more funding, and was successful in obtaining $1 million annually for SRTS infrastructure funding, and an increase of $250,000 per year for non-infrastructure spending.
“The dollars approved for the program will potentially improve the safety of tens of thousands of Minnesota school students, including many from the state’s African-American and Latino communities,” says Rachel Callanan, regional vice president of advocacy for Minnesota and Wisconsin at the American Heart Association.