Back in 2005 with the passage of SAFETEA-LU, the national transportation highway reauthorization bill, some pupil transporters looked upon the newly created Safe Routes to School program with hopes that it could finally be the vehicle to help pump a little federal money into state coffers for school busing.
Any such forecasts of a beneficial relationship have, for some, turned into wishful thinking. Not to say some money isn't available in a round-about way to school district transportation departments in the form of constructing safer, better school zones and walking and biking routes or hiring more crossing guards. For those transportation departments that have wider responsibilities than simply busing students to and from school and field trips — and these days who doesn't? — any new-found efficiencies that can open up money in other areas such as new vehicle purchases are welcome. And logic would have it that it is a good idea to have all transportation stakeholders, whether they be of the school bus, bicycle or bi-pedal variety, sitting at the same table for planning purposes.
Indeed, many transportation departments nationwide have learned to play nice with Safe Routes to School personnel, and vice versa.
But, there has been widespread disappointment within the industry that designs on securing funds to help with the construction, location and routing of safer school bus stops as part of the program's eligible infrastructure projects. NASDPTS tried just such an effort as a way to address student safety walking to and from these school bus stops, and the Safe Routes to School people obliged in adding verbiage to the group's budget request. But, in the end, congressional members turned away the school bus angle.
The result has been that many student transporters have grown to view Safe Routes to School as a threat to the livelihood of the school bus, as the U.S. Department of Transportation under Secretary Ray LaHood has taken a decidedly community-based approach to funding federal programs. Just last week, the ASBC called into question the DOT's logic in omitting school buses from its strategic plan, despite a letter writing campaign among dozens of members of Congress on the need to spread public awareness of the yellow bus.
It all could be another example of this shoddy economy at play. Just today, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership asked its constituency to join a League of American Bicyclists campaign to help head off an "attack on federal Safe Routes to School funding," as House Republican Whip Eric Cantor selected Safe Routes as an example of wasteful government spending. And it's not the first time. It should be noted that Safe Routes is the brain child of Transportation and Commerce Chair James Oberstar, a Democrat, the chief builder of SAFETEA-LU.
Regardless of the political theater, the safety and education of school children everywhere are being sacrificed. The argument can be made of course that kids get to school safely and ready to learn in no better way than on the school bus. On the flip side, Safe Routes promotes a healthy lifestyle and the opportunity to walk or bike to school with friends along safe community paths, fostering a sense of community that hearkens back to yesteryear.
But it is not 1950, 1960 or, for that matter, 1985. They're more like the 1930s Great Depression era than perhaps they've ever been. Times are as tough as they've ever been for families, schools and small business alike. And we're not out of the woods, yet. Both the school bus industry and Safe Routes are fighting up-hill battles. The Safe Routes road has seemingly fewer potholes to fill.
Still, Safe Routes is learning what the school bus set has known for years. Life is not fair. After all, even transit is hurting. At least some federal money is better than next to none.
UPDATE 6/16/10: A letter writing campaign this week from supporters of Safe Routes to School address to congressional members resulted in the House deciding not to cut program funding. It is up for reauthorization this year as part of the highway bill.