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Portland’s Safer Routes to Schools program faces 40% budget shortfall

Posted by on February 23rd, 2009 at 11:13 am

BTA Bike Safety Class at Prescott Elementary
Portland’s Safer Routes to Schools
program encourages kids to ride
to school — but budget cuts loom.
(Photos © J. Maus)

The City of Portland’s Safer Routes to Schools program is facing a steep drop in its funding for the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

In the past two years (Portland’s fiscal year goes from July 1 to June 30) the Safer Routes to Schools program has had a budget of $850,000 and $840,000 respectively. According to the program manager at PBOT’s Transportation Options division Linda Ginenthal, a sizable chunk of that budget — $250,000 — came from the city’s General Fund in the form of “one-time funds” (PBOT-speak for allocations taken from a surplus in the city’s budget).

However, with the city’s budget now in a tailspin, those one-time funds are no longer available. That means, along with other cuts, the city’s Safer Routes to Schools program has a projected 2009-2010 budget of just $520,000 — a 40% dip from current levels.

Recently, when Mayor Sam Adams asked city bureaus to wring out their budgets, the Bureau of Transportation decided to cut another $10,000 from Safer Routes. According to PBOT documents, this cut “means approximately $7,000 in new bicycles will not be purchased or distributed to school children, and $3,000 in other marketing incentives will not be purchased, such as bike bells and flashlights.”

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“The more dire equation is that next year we might have to cut back our staff by about 10%. That’s a big deal.”
– Linda Ginenthal, PBOT Transportation Options Program Manager

Ginenthal confirmed these cuts and said they will impact the program immediately. “The more dire equation,” she added “is that next year we might have to cut our paid staff time by about 10%. That’s a big deal.”

To make the money and staff stretch further, Ginenthal says she is “scrambling to find resources” and leaving no stone unturned. Besides looking for creative funding opportunities, she said they’re also considering using staff only on a seasonal basis. Like teachers, staff would be let go during the summer and possibly during December.

The city of Portland’s Safer Routes to Schools program is primarily funded through the city’s Community and Schools Traffic Safety Partnership (CSTSP). The CSTSP was established by the state legislature in 2003 and is funded through traffic fine revenue. Because the program reduces the number of car trips made to school, it also receives funding through the Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC) program.

Buckman Elem. bike safety class

(The federal government also funds Safe Routes to Schools through the SAFETEA-LU Transportation Bill, but that money goes toward facilities and engineering and is not used for operational and educational programs.)

Currently in Portland, all elementary schools are offered at least some of the Safer Routes program. 25 schools get the full, “Five E” program which includes encouragement activities, the SmartTrips to School program, engineering reports (and some improvements), targeted enforcement campaigns around the school, and more. An additional 46 schools get a pared down version of the program and all schools are eligible for a variety of educational materials and event partnerships with the city.

Current city staff devoted to the program includes Ginenthal along with part-time assistance from two other PBOT employees. The Safer Routes also currently has three full-time staffers.

Buckman Elem. bike safety class

If their budget remains at $520,000 for next year, here are the cuts Ginenthal says they would be forced to make:

  • Eliminate the SmartTrips to School program
  • Significantly reduce the encouragement activities in the 25 schools
  • Eliminate the SR2S Newsletter
  • Eliminate significant incentives purchases for encouragement activities (like new bicycles, bells, etc…)
  • Eliminates any engineering planning and report prioritization

Ginenthal says that, “These cuts represent real cuts to contracts and to City staff as well as reduced printing and purchases and other professional services.”

The non-profit Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) is the main contractor the city uses to deliver much of their Safer Routes to School services. Ginenthal says they are “looking at a significant cut” in their contract with the BTA.

Michelle Poyourow of the BTA told me on the phone this morning that the $250,000 cut is “a lot of our contract” and that “we would definitely lose some staff”. However, Poyourow added that the bigger issue for her is that Safe Routes has been a very successful program. “Cutting their budget right when they’re hitting their stride seems unwise.”

Poyourow said she understands PBOT is in a budget crisis, but that given new revenue increases slated for the coming fiscal year (from increased parking and meter fees), she feels that money should be spent on successful, proven programs.

To rally the community, the BTA plans to send out an action alert to their members encouraging them to contact Mayor Adams’ office. They also plan to organize some rallies around the monthly Kidical Mass event and hope to get people to show up and speak up for Safe Routes funding at the upcoming Community Budget Forums.

Despite the gloomy outlook, Ginenthal seems determined to keep the program going strong. “I and our Options team is very focused on finding ways to increase revenues for this program and we are hoping that we can restore some of these cuts through working with our partners, submitting grants, and any other creative option we can locate.”

Portland, a recognized national leader in Safe Routes to Schools is set to host the 2009 Safe Routes to Schools National Conference this August.

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  • steve February 23, 2009 at 11:24 am

    This program does very little other than supply jobs to unskilled workers.

    I am happy it is being cut.

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  • steve February 23, 2009 at 11:27 am

    Think about how many bikes $520,000 would buy.

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  • Angela February 23, 2009 at 11:35 am

    With all due respect, Steve, this program teaches thousands of children how to ride their bikes safely and teaches them safe pedestrian skills via an incredibly effective and efficient curriculum.

    If we decide that this is not a necessary service that should be maintained during tough economic conditions, then I suppose we can use that same line of thinking to stop all bike/ped improvements, close all our schools and put people to work on paving projects.

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  • Jessica Roberts February 23, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Whoa, Steve, do you know any of those “unskilled workers” you’re talking about? The SR2S staff I know are wonderful, smart people with a real talent for working with kids. A huge amount of institutional memory would be lost if staff were let go. And worse yet, we’d lose the momentum we’ve built up in schools. This is a big loss. Please keep us posted.

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  • metal cowboy February 23, 2009 at 11:46 am

    Steve, if you have issues with the managing of Safe routes budget , programs etc. you should voice specifics. From my vantage point, doing writing programs, bike travel adventure and inspiration shows and bicycle advocacy/safety assemblies and workshops (not funded in any way thru Safe Routes) I have seen first hand the positive effect that these programs are having on school age childre, and their parents. Before safe routes, I would go to schools with zero to single digit bicyclesparked in the racks. Today, I arrive to see many racks completely full of bikes, parents bikepooling their kids on tagalong and trailers, many equiped with safe route funded bells and lights – No program is waste free and I encourage you to let Robert Ping, at the state level, and the BTA as one of the local contractors in our specifif concerns and ideas to improve the program. Just as I have done when I have encountered feedback from administrators about the performance of certain safe routes instructors. In general, I’ve seen the tangible impacts of this program, not only in Oregon but around the country.

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  • Andrew Holtz February 23, 2009 at 11:57 am

    I remember one of the student rides I volunteered to help with. As we cruised the neighborhood around the school, a little boy suddenly shouted, “I’ve been to this park!”

    Instead of a disembodied place he passively was delivered to by car, he discovered where the park was in relation to his home and school… and most importantly, that he could get there using his own two legs.

    Yes, budgets are tight. But this program changes lives… and protects them.

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  • Kathleen McDade February 23, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    As a parent with kids at a Safe Routes school, I think the program is valuable and should keep going. Perhaps the cuts could be lessened; I would rather see the incentives for kids (flashlights, stickers, buttons, etc.) cut than staffing and engineering cuts.

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  • cyclist February 23, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Angela:

    Considering the massive deficits the city and state are forecasting, perhaps we can depend on parents to teach their children how to ride their bikes safely and teach them safe pedestrian skills?

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  • Joel February 23, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    Metal Cowboy, you are right on the money my friend (no pun intended). As one of these “un-skilled workers” (who teaches both Bicycle and Pedestrian safety classes, facilitates community meetings, organizes community events, advocates for bike infrastructure at Neighborhood association meetings, and maintains a bike fleet used at all of our schools, all with zero skills apparently) I have seen the entire school culture change around walking or riding bicycles to school. Like the Metal Cowboy I have seen increases in biking and walking to school and most importantly a decrease in driving to school. These and the other benefits Safer Routes provides to the school communities are a service much further reaching than the mere dollars invested imply. Steve, as the Metal Cowboy stated if you have a SPECIFIC problem with the program please contact us and let us know what an where it is and we will be happy to work with you to solve it. On a side note: what is wrong with providing employment to un-skilled workers? joelh@bta4bikes.org

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  • Joel February 23, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Cyclist, maybe the parents should teach math and reading as well?

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  • Jonathan Maus (Editor) February 23, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    “This program does very little other than supply jobs to unskilled workers.”

    just to add some first-hand experience.

    I have watched BTA staff in action at our local schools and have come away very impressed at the level of professionalism and expertise they bring to their work.

    they are true experts and they present a curriculum that is absolutely vital in many ways. Safe Routes isn’t just about teaching kids to bike… it’s about creating healthy habits, making our n’hoods more livable, creating more responsible and safe bike riders of the future, giving kids confidence and independence, and so on.

    and don’t forget, the PBOT may be doing lots of cutbacks… but they are also increasing parking and parking meter fees… they have money it’s just a matter of priorities and decisions on where it gets spent.

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  • Angela February 23, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    Cyclist:

    That’s a great idea, but then we’ll need to implement a program to make sure that all parents actually know safe biking and pedestrian skills. And boy would that be expensive!

    Again, I say, if that’s our line of thinking, let’s close the schools. That would save us a *ton* of money, would get those pesky parents out of the workforce and back at home with their children teaching them all the skills that are necessary to get through this life, and then in turn free up hundreds of thousands of jobs for the skilled child-free group of workers.

    Now that I think about it, it’s a great idea!

    As a matter of fact, let’s solve world hunger and just eat those pesky children! By jove, you’ve got it!

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  • velo February 23, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Steve – you are a troll. Voice specifics if you have objections, otherwise you’re just whining.

    I just helped fix bikes for the program over the weekend and am a huge supporter of the idea. Reaching kids builds lifetime habits. Part of Portland being bike friendly is making sure that Portland is kid on bike friendly. I hope money is found to continue this work.

    That said, all non-profits are being pinched right now. Fundraising is hard, donors are scared and public money is drying up. I hope the BTA is able to ensure that this program makes it though even if it does have to be scaled back for a couple of years. You can still do a lot of good with ~$500,000.

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  • Chris February 23, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Wouldn’t this program help in some way help reduce crowding on school buses. (not sure that it make much of a dent but perhaps down the road) We should be getting as much money to schools for these fitness/safety programs, healthier food, and better academic resources. Education is an investment in the future of our country. Is there a person we can contact to weigh in on the importance of particular programs and school system funding in general?

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  • bahueh February 23, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Cyclist has a good idea…but with the number of “parents” I see running stop signs with kid ‘bob’ trailers…I think such parents are in short supply.

    I cringe every single time I watch that nonsense…as about 50% have kids in the back.

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  • Shane February 23, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    To Steve and “cyclist”-
    Please do some research into what SRTS really does, in Portland, around the state, and across the country. Simply saying parents can teach their kids leaves out the engineering, evaluation, encouragement, and enforcement that is also part of the program.

    It also assumes parents know how to teach these skills which I have found is very unlikely since we never taught them in the first place. Just being able to balance doesn’t mean you know how to ride. There is specific traffic behavior that has to taught that is not. As such, these are not “unskilled workers”.

    And finally, simply purchasing bikes alone will not create a safe, sustainable transportation system. We didn’t get into our current transportation model because everyone bought cars. As a society we build roads, parking lots, created laws, and built our cities in such a way that encouraged this type of transportation. Now we need a complete re-do on that system and SRTS is an important piece of that change.

    As the SRTS Program Manager in Eugene it’s sad to hear about the possible Portland cuts. We are just starting to build our momentum down here and have made some incredible strides with the start of our SRTS funding from ODOT (and the FHWA). These programs can have a real effect of how many kids are able to walk and bike to school (which has decreased from about 50% in the 70s to around 10% in 2000). Safe routes to schools create safe routes throughout the community. I hope the PBOT SRTS team and the BTA crew can continue to grow their program.

    As a side note the National SRTS Conference is coming to Portland in August- what a model to other states would be if the program was cut.

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  • steve February 23, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    The schools could implement this program within their existing means and infrastructure. There is absolutely no need for the BTA to siphon off much needed funds.

    These people should survive on membership fees and donations, not tax dollars better spent directly on children and education.

    http://www.bta4bikes.org/at_work/staff.php

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  • Shane February 23, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    sorry for the typos- going to fast trying to get ‘unskilled’ things done.

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  • Michelle February 23, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    If you want to learn more or get active about this cut to bicycle services, and the other concerns we have with the PBOT budget, get on the BTA’s Action Alert list by emailing info[at]bta4bikes[dot]org.

    This isn’t the only problem in the budget for the improvement of bicycling conditions in the City.

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  • Peter February 23, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    nobody should be cut loose — all employees should take a pay cut to make sure everyone keeps their jobs. ideally, people at the top end of the pay scale should take bigger cuts (because they have more to spend).

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  • Joel February 23, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Steve, you have absolutely no idea of what you are writing about.

    “The schools could implement this program within their existing means and infrastructure.”

    Please explain?

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  • ScottG February 23, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    I agree with some of the posts above that suggest that the priority of this program should be on safe cycling education and training, and less on providing incentives through giving away free bikes and accessories.

    Also, I’m not sure how long this program has been in operation, but at some point they should look into doing studies of participants to measure the degree to which healthy behaviors (including but not limited to bicycling) are being adopted. With data on that, it should be easier to make a compelling argument that their budget is an investment in public health that has a meaningful ROI.

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  • metal cowboy February 23, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Hey, I’m right in the middle of reviewing Pedaling Revolution by Jeff Mapes. My review will come out in an early March edition of Sunday section of The Oregonian – I bring this up because a passage in the book addresses the reduced need for school buses if more children and parents join the ranks of safe routes to school users.
    In a section about how Amsterdam has focused on kids on bicycles : { “People have the image that they have to look out for their children b/c they are vulnerable.” (quote from Caspar Chorus, a trnasportation researcher at Eindhoven University.)
    This attitude is reinforced by the educational system, which teaches children at a young age how to safely cycle on city streets. And watching out for cyclists and ped is an important part of a driver’s training as well. By the time children are in what would be our middle school, they are mostly riding bicycles to school. As a result, schol buses are also a rare sight in the Netherlands.}

    Mapes book brings home a few things debated here today.
    Parents teaching their kids to be safe and the rules of the road on a bicycle. It would be wonderful if that were the case even in bike friendly Portland, but without safe routes programs they would continue to shuttle them by SUV and mini van. And if they put them on bikes it would be with misinformation. I’ve had more than one parent ask me if it would have been safer for me to pedal my kids across america and Canada against traffic so I could see what was coming at me. The dutch have generations of cyclist/parents passing on their wisdom. We have to create that generation if we want it passed on. And as to savings… Without a healthy funded safe routes program we won’t see a reduction in the number of school buses. Less buses = more funds in school budgets = less fuel burned =less greenhouse emissions = higher levels of fitness and on and on.

    Cause and effect – take programs out of schoolsand hope over worked teachers to fill in? or hope parents who can’t find Texas on a map will wake up tomorrow with an encyclopedia knowledge of bike safety, etc.? Dream on.

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  • joe February 23, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    seems like the 250k shortfall could be covered by justifying fewer school bus trips? also, best not to rely on “one time grants” being renewed every year, no?

    or, if psrts cannot find a way to get more money, then all staff could work 4 fewer hours per week. teachers are already being faced with this sort of reduction.

    this story, while interesting and timely, feels alarmist. well done, I just emailed our mayor.

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  • cyclist February 23, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    Shane:

    Sorry, you’re right that I don’t know much about the program, I was just responding to Angela, who said:

    “[T]his program teaches thousands of children how to ride their bikes safely and teaches them safe pedestrian skills via an incredibly effective and efficient curriculum.”

    If that were the sum total of the program I’d be fine with them cutting 50% of the budget. It’s not that I don’t think it’s worthwhile, it’s that the economy in Oregon is crumbing, and while not everybody can teach Physics, every responsible parent can teach their children how to be safe on city streets. We’re looking at making some awfully tough choices this year and next, including shortening the school year, cutting back public employees in every part of state and local government… there’s a long list. This particular program is a low priority in comparison to public schools, libraries, police and firefighters, etc.

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  • T27 February 23, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    How about funding the program through a $2/day fee for dropping you child off at school or .25 for using the school bus. I could use a little less congestion and fewer rude drivers at the local elemantary school, and we all could use healthier, happier children.

    Instead of cutting healthy programs why not stop spending money on school parking lots. I would bet that the money spent by the school district for private car transportaion is many times safe routes to school.

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  • beth h February 23, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    Quote from # 16: [Simply saying parents can teach their kids leaves out the engineering, evaluation, encouragement, and enforcement that is also part of the program.

    It also assumes parents know how to teach these skills which I have found is very unlikely since we never taught them in the first place…

    *******

    In pondering this exchange I am struck not by how much things have changed, but by WHICH things have changed.

    I was raised as a latchkey kid (both parents had to work) in a succession of cities and towns across the country from the late 1960′s through 1970′s. My parents didn’t teach me to ride a bike; I learned mostly on my own with a little prodding from my sister and neighborhood kids. No one taught me the traffic rules per se; I learned them through a combination of observation, trial-and-error and asking questions of people around me. Granted, there were risks and a few close calls, and no one wore helmets back then either; but I survived and today I’m a car-eschewing, bike-riding adult.

    I have worked with kids for over 25 years in both formal and informal educational settings. I remain convinced that the world today is not so much more dangerous than the world I grew up in. The thing that has really changed is an increase in the number of bad incidents actually reported, and in how much more terrified this generation of parents is to let their kids try new things.

    I was a volunteer in the early grass-roots days of the SRTS program, before it became the nationalized, organized and better-funded version we know today (gosh, before it even had an official name!). SRTS is a good program, but it is not a great program. It is one good idea among many, but it is not a cure-all to the present car-centric crisis that has overtaken our country, and indeed the world. Let’s support the program, but let’s not look to it as the absolute best — or only — thing that will get our kids out of cars and onto bikes.

    There are other ways for kids to learn that are less organized, less funded, and well, yes, less safe. But learning how to deal with risk is a part of growing up. Or at least it used to be.

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  • Matthew Denton February 23, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    One of the big things that Safe Routes to Schools also does is gets improvements into neighborhoods. Having someone come out and look at our neighborhood on a block by block level, and suddenly we are getting pedestrian islands, speed bumps, 4 way stops, etc, things that we’d wanted, things that we’d asked for, but the minute Safe Routes to Schools asked for it, they got built. Yes, it helps children bike/walk to school but it also helps adults feel safe walking and biking in the neighborhood as well.

    And just for the record steve, the person that came out and looked at those streets was a professional engineer. They had at least 4 years of college, but most have 6, and then 4 years of internship (which is a longer internship than a doctor.) If you want to call that unskilled labor, you might want to explain what exactly you do for a living, and why your job shouldn’t be cut.

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  • steve February 24, 2009 at 1:19 am

    Well said Beth.

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  • steve February 24, 2009 at 1:21 am

    You are exaggerating matthew.

    “..the minute Safe Routes to Schools asked for it, they got built.”

    If that is the case, then they are already done. Right?

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  • mabsf February 24, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    As the mom of a 6-year old cyclist, I would like this program to stay around.
    So I am putting out the donation jar…

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  • Tommy February 25, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Steve- Would you rather have those unskilled workers going through your trash looking for something with your SSN on it?

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  • steve February 25, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Tommy-

    Absolutely, yes. Anyone at the BTA is welcome to look through my trash. You too, if ya like.

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  • jim February 27, 2009 at 11:52 am

    500k would be about one the bill for one cyclist trip to ER. I would rather see it invested in preventative programs like this than the alternative

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