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Committee considers more money for getting to school safely

If you want Minnesota schoolchildren to be healthier and safer, where the rubber meets the road may actually be where the rubber meets the sidewalk. That would be the rubber on the soles of shoes and the tires of bicycles.

It’s the Department of Transportation’s view that walking and biking to school will contribute to a decrease in childhood obesity and other health problems. But it’s essential that those students get to school safely without having to navigate dangerous crossings. That’s why the Safe Routes to School program was started in 2005.

HF1108 would allocate $10 million in bond proceeds to the program. Sponsored by Rep. Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown), it was laid over Thursday by the House Capital Investment Committee for possible inclusion in a bonding bill.

Its companion, SF1223, sponsored by Sen. David Senjem (R-Rochester), awaits action by the Senate Capital Investment Committee.

Dave Cowan, the department’s Safe Routes to Schools coordinator, pointed to a study saying between 1969 and 2009 the percentage of U.S. children from kindergarten through eighth grade who walked or biked to school dropped from 48% to 13%. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. children in kindergarten through sixth grade who were obese grew from 4% to 35% between 1969 and 2007.

Safe Routes to School provides grants to programs that promote walking and biking for students through evaluating data, educating about bicycle and pedestrian safety, and engineering improvements to streets, trails and sidewalks.

Since its inception, over $50 million has been spent in the state on 471 Safe Routes to Schools programs at about 1,704 schools. Almost $44 million of that went to infrastructure projects, 70% of them in Greater Minnesota.

Dorian Grilley, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, said that the Safe Routes to Schools program has brought about the building of bridges and underpasses.

“But there is much to be done, as evidenced by the death of a student crossing the road outside his Eagan school,” he said.

Eagan seventh-grader Patric Vitek was struck by a car and killed while riding his bike to school on his birthday in November 2019.

“Patric Vitek was in my district,” said Rep. Liz Reyer (DFL-Eagan). “I ask everyone to think about the impact on your district if this happened.”

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