Even though it’s early January, it feels like Groundhog Day has come early. The third potential government shutdown in five months is looming (January 19th) because Congress has not passed a budget or long-term continuing resolution. As a reminder, most of the transportation appropriations we track and follow for walking, bicycling, and Safe Routes to School happen as part of the five-year surface transportation bill (most recently passed in 2021) rather than the annual appropriations process, so states have the funding and authority to keep competing out, awarding, and obligating funds for Transportation Alternatives projects.
This month, we revisit state obligation of legacy Safe Routes to School funds. The federal Safe Routes to School program created by the SAFETEA-LU surface transportation bill provided funds to each state specifically for Safe Routes to School from 2005-2012. Unlike Transportation Alternatives funds, which get returned to the federal government if not obligated within four years, leftover Safe Routes to School funds remain available until expended. We refer to these as “legacy” funds because the program no longer has dedicated funding, but the funding associated with the program remains until a state spends it. For a refresher on the legislative history of Safe Routes to School, check out this infographic tracking the standalone program through present day.
We last provided an update on legacy Safe Routes to School funds in 2022. We are pleased that in that time, states have obligated $25 million in legacy Safe Routes to School funds, however there is still $78 million remaining! While these funds do not expire, there is always the threat that Congress could reclaim these funds through the recissions process (which happened to unspent Transportation Alternatives funds in 2017!), which should motivate states to spend these dollars before Congress takes them back.
Here are the states with legacy Safe Routes to School funding balances. Looking at the “Percent Obligated” column will tell you what percentage of your state’s Safe Routes to School funds have been obligated, and you’ll see that most states have excelled and really spent the funds down. The column “Percent Obligated Change since FY21” will show you if your state has made progress spending these funds since 2021, though a negative number in that column means your state de-obligated funds and now has funds available. De-obligation happens when it’s clear that a project will not actually get built, and in this case, it’s better for the funds to go back into the pot and get re-awarded. The final column “Remaining Legacy SRTS Funds” lets you know how much money your state has remaining unobligated to spend on Safe Routes to School.
Does your state have remaining legacy Safe Routes to School funds? The first step is connecting with your state department of transportation to learn whether these funds have been awarded, meaning they are not available to spend, or if they have not been awarded, in which case, they remain available until spent. Here are some talking points to help with that outreach:
- According to data from the Federal Highway Administration, our state has unobligated Safe Routes to School legacy funds, which is left over from SAFETEA-LU. Do you know if these funds have been awarded, or are they eligible for competing out to Safe Routes to School projects and programs?
- We are interested in funding a Safe Routes to School project/program/staff person, especially because these legacy funds can be fully federally funded with no local match required. Would you consider holding a standalone Safe Routes to School competition or including a priority for Safe Routes to School projects as part of the next Transportation Alternatives competition?
If your state has unawarded, unobligated Safe Routes to School legacy funds, we have some ideas for how to make the most of those remaining Safe Routes to School funds:
- Hire a Safe Routes to School coordinator at the state level to run statewide Safe Routes to School programming, planning, coordination, and project administration.
- Fund Safe Routes to School infrastructure projects – when using these legacy Safe Routes to School funds, they can be done entirely with federal funds -- no local match required!
- Invest in Safe Routes to School non-infrastructure programs statewide, or invest in local areas that could benefit from engagement, education, and encouragement.
- Use the legacy Safe Routes to School funds as local match requirement for Safe Routes to School projects funded by Transportation Alternatives Program funds. As states continue to compete out historic amounts of Transportation Alternatives Program funding, we know that the local match requirement may be an impediment for some communities. Offering to use the legacy Safe Routes to School funds as match for TAP applications focused on Safe Routes to School could incentivize communities to prioritize safe mobility for school-aged kids.
While it is a great opportunity for states to invest the remaining $78 million in the safety and joy of kids and communities to walk and wheel, it is important to note that this totals less than seven percent of the total Safe Routes to School funding appropriated under SAFETEA-LU. With over 93 percent of the legacy funds expended on essential infrastructure and engaging programs, most states did an effective job implementing the federal Safe Routes to School program. Safe Routes to School works to keep kids safe, active, and joyful on the way to school – let’s work together to invest that remaining $78 million into Safe Routes to School projects.