HB208: Program to create safer school routes may get more funding

The Utah Department of Transportation has a program that promotes and provides safe pedestrian travel to and from schools, but every year, about two-thirds of safe route applications get denied because of lack of funding.

HB208, which is currently making its way through the Legislature, would codify the program and ensure it is prioritized in the future. The bill would also allocate more funds to the Safe Routes to School program and prioritize low-income communities where funds aren’t being used for sidewalks and other pedestrian structures, according to bill sponsor Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper.

“Each year in our state about five children are killed walking or biking to or from school and an additional three are injured,” Harrison said. “The safe routes to school program supports infrastructure projects like sidewalks, crosswalks and traffic calming devices. There’s also an educational component for our children’s schools to improve programs about pedestrian safety.”

In a Friday House Transportation Committee meeting, Harrison spoke about some of the studies in Utah communities that have received funding to establish programs similar to the Safe Routes to School program.

As a result, the programs have reduced traffic congestion in neighborhoods, which in turn lowers emissions in the air, Harrison said.

She said studies show that when children are active before school, they arrive more alert and ready to learn, they are better behaved and they exhibit higher test scores on average than the students who are not active before school.

“How many other issues do we discuss in the Legislature that address local congestion traffic issues, air quality, health and safety of our kids and also help our children perform better in school? This program hits all of those,” Harrison said. “And to me, there’s nothing more tragic than waiting too long to address safety.”

Harrison read a list of Utah children’s names who have been killed walking or biking to or from school in the last few years. Throughout the meeting, several committee members shared experiences about accidents in their own communities or pointed out problem areas near local schools.

“This is really important,” said Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan. “I speak to this from personal experience. If more cities can put more money towards sidewalks and other things to help kids get to and from school safely, I think it’s a great idea.”

Other committee members wondered if a bill is necessary when the program already exists.

Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, one such member, asked if it would be possible for the Utah Department Of Transportation to allocate more funds to the program so there wouldn’t be a need to codify it.

Harrison said codifying Safe Routes to School would not only allow more funds to go to the program, but it would also add longevity to the program and ensure it would remain a priority in the future.

It would also grant rule making authority to the Utah Department Of Transportation and would address low-income areas, according to the bill’s text.

“Those (low-income) areas may not have the city funding to address these safety issues,” Harrison said. “I believe that all children deserve to get to and from school safely, whether they come from a wealthy neighborhood or a not-so-wealthy neighborhood.”

Sarah Hodson, speaking on behalf of Get Healthy Utah, said the organization believes the Safe Routes to School program is a great way to get kids active.

“In the communities where there are more safe routes to school, we don’t just see kids walking more, we see other community members walking more too,” Hodson said. “That includes elderly members of the community and others who need safe places to walk.”

Harrison said HB208 is endorsed by the American Heart Association, the Utah League of Cities and Towns, Utah PTA, the American Association of Retired Persons, Utahns Against Hunger, Bike Utah, Utah State Board of Education, Get Healthy Utah and a variety of other associations.

The bill passed favorably in the House Transportation Committee and will go next to the House floor for discussion.

To view the bill’s full text or follow its progress throughout the 2019 legislative session, click here.

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