Advocates press for safe school route funding to continue amid uncertainty

A FCPS video shows how Safe Routes to School programming helps students’ commutes to and from schools (via FCPS)

Transit groups worry funding could end for the region’s Safe Routes to School programming, which helps students walk and bike to and from schools safely.

Federal money passes through the Virginia Department of Transportation to school districts such as Fairfax County Public Schools that apply for the funding. But the district didn’t apply for funding for the upcoming school year, as it has for nearly a decade, according to the district.

The nationwide program originated from a transportation bill, the SAFE Transportation Equity Act, that Congress passed in 2005. It also includes Safe Routes to School grants that can help with sidewalk and crosswalk projects to increase safety features, but that funding is on different cycles and wasn’t the money raising concerns locally.

According to the district, 30% of students at its elementary and middle schools participate in Safe Routes to School programming.

A new application process complicated efforts for FCPS. Applicants used to be able to apply for funding for each program but now the application is part of a new system, said FCPS Safe Routes to School coordinator, Sally Smallwood.

“We could have applied for more federal funding but the application was not designed for non-infrastructure projects and was very complex,” Smallwood wrote in a statement from the district. “A few other Virginia counties attempted to apply but no one will know if they received funding until next October. Other counties have self-funded or looked for other grants to supplement their funding.”

Smallwood, a former physical education teacher who plans to retire this year, has taught numerous students how to ride bicycles as part of the program and even helped students with disabilities overcome barriers in doing so.

“We wanted to make sure the education piece was there,” she said, noting the program helped students learn how to safely walk and bike to and from school.

Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling board member Jeff Anderson estimated that there’s been around a half million dollars in total budgeted for the district’s program since its inception. FABB suggested that federal funding was coming to an end and said in January that neither the county nor the district earmarked funding for the effort.

But President Joe Biden’s transportation infrastructure bill, signed into law last November, includes money for Safe Routes to School programming, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The law calls for funding infrastructure projects, programming and coordinators across the country.

The school board could direct the superintendent at tonight’s (Thursday) school board meeting to pursue a relief measure, which would look for an updated plan to be reviewed at the April 12 budget work session.

When the transportation committee brought the matter to the attention of Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay in a Jan. 21 letter, he responded that the board will consider those comments with the upcoming budget.

“Ensuring the safety of our kids is the highest priority. As the TAC is aware, the Board of Supervisors has been working tirelessly on increasing pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and connectivity through programs like the ActiveFairfax Transportation Plan and Safe Routes to School,” McKay wrote in a Feb. 2 response, noting that the board was interested in supporting the program.

FCPS spokesperson Julie Moult said in a statement regarding the district’s coordinator position that “FCPS is working to see if they can fund the position going forward.”