Safe Routes to School: In Law, but No Dedicated Money. What Does it Mean?

Now that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (IIJA) has been signed into law, we are seeing a flurry of excitement about what it means for Safe Routes to School, walking, and bicycling. And we are also seeing uncertainty about what the law requires and what it offers related to Safe Routes to School. In particular, the section that restored the Safe Routes to School program is leading to confusion for advocates and agencies alike. We are here to help you make sense of it what it means, why it happened like this, and what to do about it. It’s a little wonky, so if you are mostly interested in what to do related to Safe Routes to School, feel free to skip ahead to the final section.

What it Means that the Law Restores the Safe Routes to School Program

In 2012, when MAP-21 combined Safe Routes to School with two other active transportation programs, the Safe Routes to School program was no longer a standalone program in law; rather, it was included in a note referring back to the 2005 SAFETEA-LU law that originally created the program. Section 11119 of the IIJA restores the Safe Routes to School program into current law by copying the text from the 2005 law and placing it in this current law*. The 2005 law that created the federal Safe Routes to School program stated that each state must have a Safe Routes to School coordinator, it created a national clearinghouse, and it stated that each state will receive a minimum apportionment of $1 million.

As it is written both in 2005 and 2021, all of these elements are contingent upon “amounts made available to carry out this section”, and here’s the tricky part - this law (the IIJA) does not provide “amounts” (funding) to carry out this section. This means that elements contingent upon an apportionment cannot be enforced because in Section 11101 – Authorization of Appropriations, there are no “amounts made” for this program. No funding is appropriated to this program, which means states are not receiving apportionments specific to Safe Routes to School, state coordinators are not required by this law, and there will not be funding for a national clearinghouse.

Why did this happen?

Typically, when the House and Senate pass their own versions of a bill, the two chambers “conference” the bills to reconcile the differences. In this case, the Senate Environment and Public Works committee passed the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021 in May 20201, and thanks to Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE), this bill re-codified the Safe Routes to School program into law. The House passed the INVEST Act in July 2021, which thanks to sponsor Representative Anthony Brown (MD-04) and Chairman Pete DeFazio (OR-04), included a requirement that states have statewide Safe Routes to School coordinators, among other things. The intent was that when the bills were conferenced, the similarity the two chambers would agree on was the requirement for reinstatement of statewide Safe Routes to School coordinators.

Except – in this case, the bills were never conferenced! The Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021 was absorbed into the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework” – the deal hammered out between the group of 22 senators and the White House, and this was never conferenced with the House INVEST Act.  So, the intent of the Senate bill and the House bill to find common ground on state Safe Routes to School coordinators was unrealized. When we review the report language that the Senate filed with their bill, we see clearly that there is no direct funding for the Safe Routes to School program:

 
 “Sec. 1119. Safe routes to school

     Section 1119 codifies the Safe Routes to School Program and

amends it to apply the program through 12th grade to enable and

encourage high school students to walk and bike to school

safely. The program activities continue to be eligible under

the Transportation Alternatives Program, rather than receive

direct funding.

 

What do we make of this?

While we would have loved to see a full restoration and funding of the Safe Routes to School program, it was not feasible to re-separate out the Safe Routes to School program. Safe Routes to School has worked reasonably well within the Transportation Alternatives Program, and the new transportation law offers several great improvements for Safe Routes to School.

One key takeaway from the re-codification of the Safe Routes to School program in the IIJA is that Congress likes the Safe Routes to School program and wants it to continue. They even expanded its eligibility to include high schools. We worked with our partners in advocacy and members of Congress to proactively affirm eligibility for Safe Routes to School (both infrastructure and non-infrastructure) within the Highway Safety Improvement Program. And, of course, Safe Routes to School continues to be eligible within the Transportation Alternatives Program and the Surface Transportation Block Grant more broadly.

Tips for States that want to do good work on Safe Routes to School:

We encourage state agencies to consider congressional intent to continue and expand the Safe Routes to School program in the management of federal transportation funds.

  • Employ a state Safe Routes to School coordinator
    • Pay for it out of TAP administrative funds (new eligibility! 5% of Transportation Alternatives Program apportionments may be used to administer the program, including staffing)
    • Pay for it out of unspent SAFETEA-LU funds (yes, there are still states that have this!)
    • Pay for it out of their state DOT budget
  • Fund Safe Routes to School programs (infrastructure and non-infrastructure) that benefit high schools and high schoolers (new eligibility!)
  • Use Highway Safety Improvement Program funding as a match for Transportation Alternatives Program projects (new eligibility!)
    • State DOT staff: connect with your HSIP colleague to discuss this as a possibility
    • Practitioners/Advocates: meet with your state’s Transportation Alternatives Program manager/Safe Routes to School coordinator to discuss this exciting new option
  • Use Highway Safety Improvement Program funds for Safe Routes to School non-infrastructure and/or infrastructure
  • Invest in Safe Routes to School programs with a variety of funding sources: Transportation Alternatives, Highway Safety Improvement Program, Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality, and Surface Transportation Block Grant funds – among others.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 offers many improvements to Safe Routes to School, the Transportation Alternatives Program, and the Highway Safety Improvement Program. We will continue to share out what is in the new law, what it means for you and your work. Please reach out to marisa@saferoutespartnership.org with any questions or topics you would like us to cover!

*it removed the line that projects can be done entirely with federal funds