For years, kids walked to school without government help

Tom Steward
Tom Steward: You may not realize how complicated going to school the old-fashioned way has become.
Freedom Foundation of Minnesota

Tom Steward is investigative director for the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, which describes itself as "an independent, nonprofit educational and research organization that develops and actively advocates the principles of individual freedom, personal responsibility, economic freedom, and limited government."

Remember the safety patrol volunteers who got out of class early to stand guard at school crosswalks? The largest safety program in the world today, the School Safety Patrol Program was started in 1921 by the American Automobile Association (AAA) as a community service. AAA Minneapolis still provides all the necessary training materials, safety supplies and recognition items free of charge to 140 schools in Hennepin County.

"During the program's local history, there has never been a traffic-related student death at a Patrol-guarded crossing," according to AAA Minneapolis' website.

It's instructive to keep that model in mind as we fast-forward to a federal government program called Safe Routes to School (SRTS). Safe Routes is itself a throwback, with a goal of returning to the schooldays of the '60s, when four of every 10 elementary students walked or biked to class. That number today is closer to one in 10.

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Today, it takes a billion-dollar federal program, replete with government bureaucracy, regulations and red tape, to get those school kids to class. You may not realize how complicated going to school the old-fashioned way has become, but you will after reading the state's 24-page handbook with helpful guidelines and strategies for more than 200 participating schools statewide. There are politically correct options that take walking or biking to school a step further. The menu includes walking school buses, international walk/bike to school day, bicycle rodeos and trains. Rochester's 33-page Walking School Bus Manual also features creative names for walk-days (Marvelous Moving Mondays, etc.) and an equipment checklist that includes walkie-talkies ($50-$350), large laminated walking route map ($25-$100) and pedometers ($15-$25).

"Safe Routes Minnesota takes a holistic approach to all these problems, creating a positive effect on neighborhood and school communities through a simple solution: helping children walk and bike to school via safe routes," according to the SRTS website.

What about the danger of your child being abducted on the way to or from school? SRTS offers a list of talking points that includes this blithe advice: "Most importantly, be sure your child knows not to talk to strangers and to run for help if he feels threatened. Strangers really shouldn't be a problem."

Yet a program the state and federal government market as a way to improve school safety and fight childhood obesity masks what in reality often amounts to another public works program championed by former Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar. Each year, SRTS honors the former chairman of the House Transportation Committee by awarding the James L. Oberstar Safe Routes to School Award to one lucky participant.

Since the inception of SRTS in 2005, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has handed out more than $11 million to scores of schools and communities statewide, including $768,000 just last month. While most federal transportation programs require at least 15-20 percent in local matching funds, Safe Routes to School grants are a blank check from the U.S. Treasury.

"SRTS is meant to retrofit communities to fix safety problems and allow more kids to bike and walk to school," said Lisa Bender, who administers Minnesota's chapter of the federally funded program.

The spending goes to consultants, public relations campaigns, sidewalks, signs, biking and hiking trails and crosswalks, on or off school grounds. Why should federal taxpayers in other states be billed $355,000 for city sidewalks and handicap accessible curbs in Eyota, $35,000 for two mobile speed monitors in St. Louis County, or $80,000 for a traffic calming project and walking school bus pilot program in Rochester? Come to think of it, why should we?

The Safe Routes to School program is a prime example not only of unsustainable and unnecessary spending but also of the insidious way Washington grows government. To be sure, SRTS and the Oberstar Award are hanging by a thread in House-Senate conference committee negotiations on the federal transportation bill. If the House of Representatives prevails, SRTS will ultimately go the way of its sponsor and be retired.

But that doesn't mean Minnesota taxpayers will get a break. In a little noticed development, the 2012 Minnesota Legislature approved a provision in the Omnibus Transportation bill to fund SRTS in the event federal funding dries up. "Financial assistance under this section is to supplement or replace aid for infrastructure projects under the federal program," according to the unofficial transcript of the legislation signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Where is the spending safety patrol when we need it?