More funds proposed to forge safer routes to school

/ 7 March 2013 / eunice

Jonathan Avise, Session Daily, March 7, 2013 – Patrick Sullivan lived just a few miles from school as a high schooler in Mounds View – but as a teen without a vehicle or a driver’s license, getting there was no easy feat.

The Macalester College freshman told the House Transportation Finance Committee Thursday about the sidewalks along a busy highway that terminated well short of Mounds View High School, leaving students who lived too near to bus but with no means to drive to traverse a rocky shoulder strewn with broken glass while heavy trucks whizzed past nearby.

Sullivan’s problem isn’t uncommon across the state, says Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park), the sponsor of HF797, a bill drawing bipartisan support that would invest $16 million in state bonding and General Fund dollars in a program that would help build safer routes to schools for Minnesota children.

Hortman’s legislation would expand a Department of Transportation safe routes effort that has $3.8 million available in 2013-2014 to help school districts cover infrastructure improvements and planning costs. That funding hasn’t been enough, however, she said, leaving most funding requests unfilled and too many students left with unsafe paths to school each morning.

Since 2005, Hortman said, just 28 percent of proposed safe routes projects have been completed.

“The funding has just been inadequate,” she said.

The $12.8 million bonding portion of the bill was held by the committee to rank with other transportation borrowing proposals before being forwarded to the House Capital Investment Committee. The proposed $3.2 million General Fund allocation – to be used, Hortman said, for education and awareness efforts – was laid over by Committee Chair Rep. Frank Hornstein(DFL-Mpls) for possible inclusion in an omnibus transportation financing bill.

Aside from keeping school children safe, the program would also help keep them more fit, Hortman told the committee, by encouraging greater numbers of students to walk and ride their bikes to school each day.

Not all lawmakers were convinced by the plan, despite praising the effort to improve the safety of children. Rep. Mike Benson (R-Rochester) wondered aloud whether the amount of spending could be justified by the number of students who would use the routes.

“I remember when I turned 16, the last thing I wanted to do was ride a bike,” Benson said.

Jodi Gertken, a project coordinator for BLEND, a St. Cloud-area group that aims to get children more active, praised the bill, saying “as a mother, there really is no higher priority than the health and safety of my children and other children in my community.”

A companion, SF687, sponsored by Sen. Melisa Franzen (DFL-Edina), awaits action in the Senate Finance Committee.