Transportation - Where the Sidewalk Ends

Brian Friel
National Journal Group, Inc.
June 26, 2004

A generation ago, 5-year-old Ted Oberstar started reminding his dad to put on his seat belt before starting the car. Just 11 percent of Americans buckled up back then, and the government had started a campaign -- targeted largely at children -- to boost seat belt use. A generation later, a grown-up Ted automatically fastens his seat belt when he gets in the car, as does Ted's 5-year-old daughter, who now reminds her grandfather to put on his seat belt. Thanks in part to persistent kids everywhere, use of seat belts nationwide has grown to 79 percent, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates.

Ted's dad, it turns out, is Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn. First elected in 1974, the representative is now the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the panel that oversees hundreds of billions of dollars in federal transportation spending. Even in a Republican Congress, Oberstar is in a powerful position, since his committee is perhaps the most bipartisan in the House. Oberstar is using his position to push through a billion-dollar, six-year program to get more kids to walk and bike to school. He sees the program in grand terms, hoping that a major federal effort to get school kids out of cars and onto sidewalks will affect the habits of his granddaughter's generation in the same way the government's seat belt program affected his son's. Conditioning kids to bike and walk to school, Oberstar hopes, will instill a lifelong habit of healthy living. "Rarely do you get an opportunity to change the habits of an entire generation," Oberstar said in an interview. "You get an opportunity like this once in a lifetime, and I'm determined to see this through."

Dubbed "Safe Routes to School," Oberstar's program would divvy up a billion dollars among the states to spend on infrastructure improvements such as sidewalks and bike paths, as well as on education campaigns. Oberstar tucked the measure into the massive highway and transit bill, which is now winding its way through Congress, with the consent of committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, who has himself set aside more than $500 million in the bill for special transportation projects in his home state. Overall, the highway bill would spend about $300 billion over six years on big highway and transit projects, making Oberstar's billion-dollar Safe Routes to School program seem like small potatoes. A taxpayer watchdog group opposes the program, and some state highway departments are grumbling about it, but Safe Routes to School has the blessing of members of both parties and is virtually certain to be included in the final bill.

Oberstar's plans originated in the late 1990s, when he attended a conference on obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He learned that about 15 percent of children are overweight these days, compared with about 5 percent of kids in the late 1960s. And the problem is even worse among grown-ups. In the 1970s, 48 percent of adults were overweight and 15 percent were obese. Now, 65 percent are overweight and 30 percent are obese, according to the CDC. The heavier a person is, the more susceptible he or she is to certain diseases, including diabetes.

The underlying reasons for Americans' weight problems are complex and a subject of much debate. The basic problem, however, is simple. Americans are consuming more calories than they expend in activity.

A direct cause-and-effect relationship has not been proved, but the statistical growth in children's weight has coincided with a statistical decline in the percentage of kids who walk or bike to school. In the late '60s, when the percentage of fat children was three times lower than it is today, 90 percent of children who lived within a mile of their school walked or biked. Today, according to the CDC, only 31 percent of such kids do so. Overall, 48 percent of kids walked or biked to school in the late 1960s. Now, it's less than 15 percent.

Advocates of walking cite several reasons for the change. For starters, schools are larger and farther apart than they used to be, making it less likely that kids will walk. And more mothers work now than did 30 years ago; they have time to drop their kids off by car on their way to work, but not enough time to walk them to school. Moreover, parents are concerned about kidnappers and other criminals, and they don't want their kids walking without adult supervision. And as fewer kids walk, it seems less safe for those who do, dissuading even more parents from letting their kids walk. "It's a negative feedback loop," said Wendi Kallins, the Safe Routes to School program director in Marin County, Calif.

Oberstar, an avid bicyclist, saw a connection between the obesity trend and the decline in walking and biking to school. A United States Postal Service racing team flag, signed by Lance Armstrong and his teammates, hangs front and center in the entrance lobby to Oberstar's Rayburn House Office Building suite. A framed picture of Oberstar biking in Yosemite National Park is on the coffee table in his personal office. And last year, the year Oberstar turned 70, he logged 2,950 miles on his bike.

So, after the obesity conference, Oberstar gathered bike advocates such as the League of American Bicyclists and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to help him develop a Safe Routes to School pilot program. In 2000, he successfully pressed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to provide $50,000 grants to Marin County, Calif., and Arlington, Mass., to set up test projects. In both places, the efforts boosted the number of kids who bike and walk to school, a result that helped Oberstar get the $1 billion into this year's highway bill.

Also helping Oberstar's cause is a grassroots boom in Safe Routes to Schools programs across the country. Without federal encouragement, such programs now exist in 26 states. Though most are local efforts, California set up a statewide program that has been inundated with grant requests from around the state. About 3,000 schools participated in a national walk-to-school day last October. In other words, there is demand.

The reasons for such demand are apparent one morning in June at Rolling Terrace Elementary, an 800-student school in Silver Spring, Md. With a half hour to go before the late bell rings, a few groups of kids and mothers are walking down a sidewalk toward the school. They are being passed on a narrow road by car after minivan after SUV. The vehicles pull into the school driveway in a steady stream, kids jump out, and the parents zoom off to work. "We have traffic issues in front of the school," said Monica Ettinger, a parent who took on the volunteer role of safety advocate. "We've had some very close calls." Jacqueline Idoni, a crossing guard who has directed kids and traffic at a nearby intersection for 15 years, said cars often ignore the recently installed stop signs as they make turns. "We finally got a four-way stop -- and half the people don't honor it," she said. By her count, Idoni guides 170 kids and parents across the street a day. "Luckily, we've never had an accident here."

Ettinger was responsible for the stop signs, as well as for several new sidewalks near the school. The money for the infrastructure improvements came from state and local coffers. She also got a one-way sign installed at the end of the school driveway so that parents dropping their kids off have to follow a route away from the school that prevents traffic tie-ups. Other parents have spearheaded similar efforts across the country. "It's catching on like gangbusters," Oberstar said.

The demand has helped build support in Congress for Oberstar's program, but Tom Schatz, president of the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, said the federal government has no business paying for such projects. "If a city wants to build extra sidewalks and bike paths, they can build it themselves," Schatz said. A related complaint has surfaced among some state highway administrators, who would be charged with overseeing the federal Safe Routes to School program. Highway administrators say they would rather have the option of funding sidewalks and bike paths, rather than be required to do so.

Oberstar said he doesn't buy that position. Before 1991, when states had the option of spending federal money on bike-related projects, they spent only $20 million over two decades on bike paths. After 1991, when the federal government required bike-related spending, states devoted $750 million in six years to such projects. "If you leave it up to the states, they have all sorts of excuses for not spending money building bike paths -- or on anything other than pouring asphalt," Oberstar said.

But Schatz also argues that walking and biking are not the safest ways for kids to get to school. Indeed, a 2002 National Research Council study found that school buses are the safest mode of school transportation, accounting for just 2 percent of fatalities during school travel hours. Walking and biking accounted for 22 percent of fatalities, and passenger vehicles accounted for the rest. Schatz sees the "Safe Routes to School" name as a political ploy. "It's a name that's difficult to vote against, but it's a bad program," he said. "Are they going to have security guards all along the bike paths?"

Oberstar said the program will target areas within about a mile of schools. Since most of walking and biking injuries and deaths are caused by cars hitting kids, sidewalks and other improvements funded by the program will improve safety, say advocates for the program. "Citizens Against Government Waste would serve their cause better by finding real things to worry about," Oberstar declared.

Schatz concedes that Congress is likely to approve the program. "When have they voted to spend less money?" he asked. A conference committee is now working out differences between the House and Senate versions of the highway bill. A smaller version of Oberstar's program is included in the Senate bill, so the question facing the conferees will not be whether to fund Safe Routes to School, but how much money to give it.

The answer to that question depends on the overall size of the bill, which has become the main sticking point. The Bush administration wants a bill of about $256 billion, while most lawmakers would spend $318 billion. To leverage as large a program as possible, Oberstar forced a floor vote in the House instructing House negotiators to demand that Oberstar's billion-dollar program be accepted by the Senate. "We get an opportunity to do something like this once in a career in the Congress," Oberstar told his colleagues as his proposal came up for a vote on June 3. The House approved it 377-30.


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