Eight state legislators are chiming in their support of regional government Metro creating a regional Safe Routes to School program.
The proposal, which comes from a coalition of local transportation, health and justice advocacy groups, already has formal backing from the cities of Beaverton, Tigard, Milwaukie and Forest Grove, as well as the Beaverton School Board. It’s currently on track to become a major public issue next spring.
The idea is to dedicate some of the increasingly flexible federal transportation money that flows through Metro to giving elementary schools throughout the region an option to get a few classes in safe biking and walking, and to focus money for better crosswalks, sidewalks and bikeways around the same schools.
Moreover, the coalition is proposing to prioritize funding for schools where more than half the pupils qualify for free or reduced lunch.
In a Sept. 30 letter to the Metro council, a group of legislators led by state Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson of East Portland says that the program “results in a 40 percent increase in families who walk and bike to school.”
For example, in Beaverton walking and biking quadrupled when a federal Safe Routes to School grant funded a Safe Routes to School Coordinator to educate students and encourage walking and biking to school. As soon as the grant ended and federal funding was no longer available, the number of students walking and biking reduced by half.
Also joining the letter to Metro’s council were Rep. Jeff Reardon, Rep. Kathleen Taylor, Rep. Chris Gorsek, Rep. Rob Nosse, Rep. Carla Piluso, Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer and Rep. Shemia Fagan. All are Democrats from the Portland metro area.
The subtext of a letter from state legislators is that if Metro decides to cover the relatively small amount of money for program funding — $2.7 million a year would be enough for every public elementary school in the region to offer the program — the state might in 2017 approve a gas tax hike or other plan to help cover the much larger costs of improving the streets near schools.
Those costs are spelled out in a policy document from the For Every Kid coalition.
The Metro Council has set itself a deadline of March 2016 to come to a decision on the issue.
Advocates haven’t settled on how much money they’re asking for from Metro.
Bicycle Transportation Alliance Advocacy Director Gerik Kransky said Thursday that the plan hinges on the fact that federal transportation law is about to increase the amount of money that goes to Metro and similar organizations.
Kransky and other members of the For Every Kid Coalition are pushing for those extra dollars to go toward the new regional Safe Routes program.
Also competing for that funding are advocates for faster freight access. Kransky called it “a little bit of an open question” whether freight advocates will mount a fight next fall to get their own slice of Metro’s rising federal funding.
So far, Kransky said, “we have not heard a significant backlash from those more traditional freight advocates and business advocates. … All of this looks better than years past when we’ve had these conversations.”
Correction 4:19 pm: An earlier version of this post had the wrong number of legislators. It’s Vega Pederson plus seven more.
Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.