Our analysis: Oregon ‘Transportation Package’ misses the crosswalk on Safe Routes to School funding

Last week, the Oregon Legislature released the long-awaited transportation package in bill form, as House Bill (HB) 2017 (note: 298 pages!). We are pleased to see the Oregon Legislature dedicate funding in HB 2017 to ensure more youth in Oregon can safely walk and roll to school. This is a step in the right direction for the hundreds of thousands of students in Oregon who currently live within their school’s 1-mile walk zone but do not have a safe route to their school, nor a program to support and encourage their safe and active school transportation.

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Oregon Safe Routes to School

However, as HB 2017’s Section 123, the section that deals with Safe Routes to School funding, is currently written, we are gravely concerned that:

  • The youth who need a safe route to school the most will be prevented from receiving one at all. Low-Income, Title I schools do not have the funds to match 40% — or even 25% — of a safety improvement project, and not all cities or towns have policies in place that prioritize those low-income schools that typically have the most street safety needs.
  • If only 1/4-mile infrastructure improvements are made, we will continue to see unsafe road situations on primary walking routes around schools. School ‘walk zones’ for elementary students are one mile from school — these students have no yellow school bus and often no additional transportation support from the school.
  • Schools with improved walking routes will not realize the full potential travel mode shift because there is no funding in this bill to support the related Safe Routes to School education and encouragement programming.
  • When the funding sunsets in 10 years, only a fraction of schools will have received any safety benefits, and those that do will only see partial (1/4) benefit. Related traffic safety, air quality, and youth obesity and health concerns will continue, as high numbers of students who live within walking distance are likely to continue to be driven in a private vehicle — until schools and families see true safety investments in place.

We are disappointed to see the language in HB 2017 for Safe Routes to School is significantly weaker than that of HB 3230 (PDF), which already passed out of the House Committee on Transportation earlier this session.

We are advocating, at a minimum, substitution of HB 3230 language into HB 2017 Section 123. Specifically:

  1. The students who need a safe route the most, of course, are those who have no option but to already walk to school in unsafe conditions. At low-income Title I schools, many caregivers do not have a flexible schedule or cannot afford to drive their children to school: these kids are already walking. Requiring a 40% match for projects around low-income schools may all but eliminate these schools from the process to be in line for safety upgrades. Not all cities or towns have policies in place that prioritize those low-income schools, and the need to provide safe routes for youth who need them most is more important than proving local jurisdictions have “skin in the game”.
    Our recommendation: Waive the match requirement for Title I schools.
    HB 3230: establish a methodology for distributing a proportionate share of moneys received under section 1 of this 2017 Act to school applicants that are considered high poverty under Title I of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. 
  2. In Oregon, school walk zones are one mile for elementary and 1.5 miles for middle school students. Barring extremely hazardous situations, these students are ineligible for yellow bus service and are expected to get to and from school on their own or with the support of their family — this is an immense burden for most working families. It’s important to also note that students live throughout the walk zone, so to only allow these funds to be spent within a quarter-mile of a school is to ignore serious safety needs and barriers for students traveling from further away.
    Our recommendation: Allow improvements to be made on priority walking routes within a mile of a school (1.5 miles of middle schools). The applicable plan developed pursuant to ORS 195.115, also known as a School Action Plan, is robust and sufficient to determine these primary walking routes.
    HB 3230: prioritize the expenditure of funds as authorized under this section for safe routes to schools infrastructure projects that are located within a one-mile radius of a school that is considered high poverty under Title I.
  3. We have let the travel safety of our kids slip to the bottom of the prioritization list for so long that the rate of walking and bicycling to school has more than halved in the past 50 years. It is essential to include supportive pedestrian and bicycle safety education and encouragement programming, which is a form of transportation demand management (TDM) for school populations. The pairing of infrastructure and programmatic support is shown to result in a 43 percent increase in walking and bicycling rates over five years.
    Our recommendation: Recognizing the extreme financial constraints put on the state’s General Fund, including those to fund basic education, we recommend the Oregon Department of Transportation increase funding for Safe Routes to School programming at the state level by looking to existing eligible federal Transportation Alternative Program (TAP) funds for Safe Routes to School program support. This programmatic support funding should be directly tied to past and current infrastructure improvements around schools.
    HB 3230: out of the General Fund, the amount of $12 million, to be deposited in the Safe Routes to Schools Fund. 
  4. Finally, given the size of this package, the importance of our next generation, and where we want and need to move our state to reach its climate emission reduction and related vehicle miles traveled goals (PDF), it is heartbreaking to see only $10 million per year for the hundreds of thousands of youth in more than 1,200 public and charter schools and 197 school districts in the state; worse, that the dedication would end after only 10 years. The need is so much greater, and so should be our state’s commitment to our children and our future. The funding for this essential work should not end in 10 years, as currently written in HB 2017.
    Our recommendation: Increase the amount of funding available for infrastructure improvements around schools, and remove the 10-year sunset.
    HB 3230: at least $20 million shall be expended for the planning, design and construction of safe routes to schools infrastructure projects that will reduce barriers and hazards to children walking or bicycling to and from school.

Read additional analysis of the full transportation package here and here and here.

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City of Portland Safe Routes to School

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