What Does the Transportation Bill Mean for Safe Routes to School?

Margo PedrosoThis week, Congress is voting on a new two-year transportation bill, called MAP-21, that will make significant changes to federal transportation policy that negatively impact bicycling and walking programs.  Please see our joint statement with the America Bikes coalition for information on the effect on bicycling and walking more broadly.

We also wanted to provide you with specifics about how the bill affects Safe Routes to School.  Please see below for our initial questions and answers about the impacts and then review other resources in our MAP-21 Resource Center.

How much funding will Safe Routes to School get under the new bill?

Under the new structure, Safe Routes to School is combined with the former Transportation Enhancements program and Recreational Trails program. Congress also added some new eligible uses, including environmental mitigation and boulevard construction. This new program is called “Transportation Alternatives.” The funding level for all these uses combined is approximately $800 million per year, which is a cut of more than 30 percent from the $1.2 billion allocated in FY2011 for the three bicycling and walking programs. Plus states can opt out of using half of the Transportation Alternatives money. If all states opted out, that would only leave approximately $400 million for Transportation Alternatives, which is a 67 percent cut from current levels. 

As a comparison, in FY2011, Safe Routes to School alone was funded at $202 million. Clearly there is a lot less money available overall, and Safe Routes to School projects will need to compete against other bicycling and walking projects, as well as the new eligibilities of environmental mitigation and boulevard construction.

The amount of funding that will go to Safe Routes to School under this new construct will depend on the decision-making of state departments of transportation and the work of advocates and public officials at the local level.

How will the funding work in the new bill?

Out of the $800 million available for Transportation Alternatives, states will first allocate $85 million to Recreational Trails, unless they opt out of doing so. Of the remaining funds, half of the Transportation Alternatives funding will be allocated by population to metropolitan planning organizations and more rural areas. Metropolitan planning organizations with a population of 200,000 or greater will receive their funds through suballocation and will hold grant competitions for their share of the funding. The other half of the funding will be awarded by state departments of transportation through grant competitions, unless they opt out of this portion completely and transfer it to other highway uses, which is permissible.

What about the money that has already been allocated to Safe Routes to School under SAFETEA-LU (the 2005 transportation law)?

Funding will continue to flow under current law through September 30, 2012. That means that by the time funding draws to a close under current law, states will have received approximately $1.16 billion in Safe Routes to School funding. As of March 2012, states had allocated approximately $812 million of this funding—leaving $350 million yet to be awarded. We will be working with state departments of transportation as well as advocates and public officials to get state DOTs to allocate any remaining Safe Routes to School funds. In addition, funds already awarded should continue to flow. 

Will we still be able to fund infrastructure and non-infrastructure?

The new bill includes all existing eligibilities for Safe Routes to School, including all five E’s. So infrastructure and non-infrastructure should continue to be eligible, but will have to compete against other projects. 

What happens to Safe Routes to School coordinators?

Because the new bill includes a reference to the current Safe Routes to School law, Safe Routes to School coordinators are an eligible use of Transportation Alternatives funds. Whether those coordinators continue will depend on each state’s funding and staffing priorities. There will need to be a push in each state to advocate for their continuation.

What about the National Center for Safe Routes to School?

Unfortunately, the new bill eliminates specific funding for the National Center for Safe Routes to School, which serves as the Safe Routes to School clearinghouse. Legislative authority for the clearinghouse remains, so its future will depend on whether the US Department of Transportation has enough administrative funds to continue the clearinghouse. The Safe Routes Partnership supports the continuation of the clearinghouse.

Are there any potential new funding opportunities for Safe Routes to School projects?

In addition to the specific eligibility for Safe Routes to School within the Transportation Alternatives program, a new eligibility has been added for infrastructure creating “safe routes for non-drivers.” Since Transportation Alternatives uses are also eligible for the broader surface transportation programs, this could mean that in some supportive states, some safe routes-type projects are funded out of other surface transportation funding streams, but again, there will be stiff competition.

As a Safe Routes to School advocate, what should I be doing?

Remember that this is only a two-year bill. If your state still has funds to award for Safe Routes to School, work with policy makers and partners to make that happen, and get all funds obligated. Keep doing a good job implementing Safe Routes to School programs and share those successes with your local lawmakers and your Congressional representatives. We can turn this around in future transportation bills. And, stay connected with the Safe Routes Partnership. We are strategizing with other groups and will be providing more information about how your projects can compete in this new environment, which starts in October 2012. We will all need to work together to encourage state departments of transportation to use all of their Transportation Alternatives money, rather than opting out of half of it, and we will need to work with local jurisdictions to get them to propose Safe Routes to School projects. Keep your head up, keep fighting and keep presenting the vision and need for a positive future where kids can walk and bicycle safely to school and in daily life.

For more information on MAP-21, see our MAP-21 Resource Center.