State schools nab $3.8M windfall for sidewalks

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 5, 2011 - 9:12 PM

The national Safe Routes to School program has awarded the funds to 16 communities to encourage students to walk or bike.

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Cathy Rude stood where a sidewalk will be built in front of Glen Lake Elementary School in Minnetonka. Rude, a coordinator of the Safe Roads to School program, secured a federal grant nearing $358,000 for sidewalks to encourage students to walk and bike to school.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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In the logic of the federal budget, new sidewalks are needed to help fight childhood obesity.

In Minnetonka, $358,000 in federal funds is paying to build sidewalks near Glen Lake Elementary School. Pierz, a central Minnesota city of less than 2,000, will get $447,000 to build 4,200 feet of sidewalks, as well as improve pavement markings and a "dynamic speed display system." In the southeast, Eyota's 64-page study of the town's "walkability" has resulted in a $356,000 grant for trails, traffic-calming measures and making curbs accessible to disabled students.

The national Safe Routes to School program is bestowing $3.8 million to 16 communities statewide for similar purposes. Advocates say the funds are needed to encourage students to walk or bike to school. But others wonder if this is the best use of scarce federal dollars, particularly when many schools are cutting back.

"It's a good program with good intentions, and it's nice when it's there," said state Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, chairman of the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee. "But if it were to go away, we would do just fine."

The six-year-old Safe Routes to School program, which former Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., proudly calls "my baby," is aimed at encouraging young students to make trips to neighborhood schools by wheel or by foot.

"I think it's definitely a necessary program -- a great program," said city administrator Anna Gruber of Pierz, where the money will also build a "pedestrian refuge" to make it easier to cross a busy street in front of the school. "Our community is very supportive."

Safe Routes to School has given $584 million to 10,400 U.S. schools from 2005 to the end of last year, and it has found Minnesota so attractive that it held its national convention here last month. Minnesota has received $15.8 million to bestow as grants to schools and communities, whose participation is voluntary but often enthusiastic. It pays for infrastructure as well as promotion of events such as the "walking school buses" that have been popular at Lyndale Community School in south Minneapolis.

Oberstar, a cycling advocate and transportation expert who lost a re-election contest last November, said he was motivated by a presentation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the explosion of obesity among children. "I got on my bike, went for a long ride and thought about it," he said.

The result, eventually, was a stream of federal dollars heading to places such as Stowe Elementary School in west Duluth.

Duluth officials believed that nearby Hwy. 23 created a barrier for students seeking to walk or bike to Stowe. They won a $171,000 Safe Routes to School grant in 2008 and have used the money to make the busy thoroughfare easier to cross. "Bulb-outs" -- curb extensions that narrow the road near the school -- were added, along with traffic-pattern changes, pavement markings and better signs. Funds also are being used to promote cycling in Duluth schools.

The Hopkins public schools, which received funding this year for the sidewalk at Glen Lake Elementary in Minnetonka, has been using county and state public health grants to promote walking and biking to schools.

Cathy Rude, who coordinates the Safe Routes program for Hopkins, helped organize a "walkability assessment" of Glen Lake and neighboring schools, in which community leaders studied school routes and combed the neighborhood to look for barriers to young pedalers. Rude walks her children to school and believes hearty Minnesota kids can bundle up and trudge off on all but the most frigid days. "Safe Routes is a way to start creating habits when kids are young, to walk or bike," she said.

But can curb cuts and "walk-and-roll Fridays" change voluntary behavior? Oberstar said he has visited communities nationwide that have had great success in changing habits for students and their automobile-centric parents. But neither the state nor the National Center for Safe Routes to School has before-and-after surveys showing changes in students' and parents' going-to-school behavior.

Beard would not deny the program's merits or popularity. But it represents a more expansive philosophy of government than Beard and his GOP colleagues are comfortable with. They just fought a bitter battle with Gov. Mark Dayton over a $5 billion state budget deficit.

"At some point we have to say to the feds, don't feel compelled to send us more money," he said.

"We love our children probably more than the average Washington transportation bureaucrat. We're quite capable of looking out for how our kids get to schools."

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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