Safe Routes to School:

Progress in Implementing the Program, but a Comprehensive Plan to Evaluate Program Outcomes Is Needed

GAO-08-789: Published: Jul 31, 2008. Publicly Released: Jul 31, 2008.

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In August 2005, Congress established the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program primarily to encourage children to walk and bicycle to school. GAO was asked to determine (1) the steps the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and states have taken to implement the program, (2) the extent to which FHWA and states have evaluated the results of the program, and (3) how the program is related to other surface transportation programs and some considerations for future reauthorization. GAO reviewed statutes, regulations, and guidance; analyzed program obligation data and funds awarded by states; and interviewed officials with FHWA, state departments of transportation, and local grant recipients.

FHWA and the states have implemented key aspects of the SRTS program. FHWA established a clearinghouse to provide technical assistance for SRTS programs and a national task force to study and develop a strategy for advancing SRTS programs nationwide. It also provided an interim report to Congress on its progress and developed program guidance that provides states with flexibility in implementing their SRTS programs. Although state-level implementation varies, states have made progress in implementing the program. Approximately 2,700 schools nationwide are participating in the program. As of March 31, 2008, states obligated almost $75 million in SRTS funding or approximately 18 percent of the total amount apportioned by FHWA since September 2005. FHWA, in collaboration with the clearinghouse and the national task force, has taken significant steps to develop a framework for evaluating SRTS program outcomes, including developing standardized data collection forms. However, FHWA lacks a comprehensive plan to monitor and evaluate the full range of SRTS program outcomes. FHWA requests, but does not require states to develop and report information on program results. The Department of Transportation (DOT) could require states to develop and report such information by including language in its grant agreements. The Government Performance and Results Act requires agencies to measure performance toward the achievement of program goals and objectives. The clearinghouse has made an initial effort to talk with key stakeholders, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about appropriate measures for health and environmental outcomes, but additional work is needed to determine the feasibility of developing these outcome measures. The SRTS program broadens the federal transportation role in that it addresses concerns about bicycle and pedestrian safety of students, childhood obesity and inactivity, and traffic and environmental problems in the vicinity of schools, rather than primarily addressing broader concerns about the condition of surface transportation infrastructure or highway safety. Also, we note that while most federal funds for federal highway projects require a 20 percent match from state and local governments, a 100 percent federal share is established for SRTS projects or activities. GAO has previously reported that grants with federal matching requirements may promote relatively more state and local spending than nonmatching grants. Finally, the SRTS program incorporates some of GAO's principles for re-examining federal programs--such as sharing best practices--but the program has had more limited success in implementing performance accountability.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: No legislation has been proposed to revise the Safe Routes to School Program. In July 2012, MAP-21 consolidated several programs--including the SRTS program--into the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP). TAP does not require local matches.

    Matter: To improve the likelihood that federal investment in the SRTS program will be used to supplement, rather than replace, state or local spending on similar activities, Congress may wish to consider requiring a state or local match for the program, while possibly including provisions that would protect low-income communities from being at a disadvantage when competing for SRTS funds.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, we reported that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) lacks a comprehensive plan to monitor and evaluate the full range of program outcomes for the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program. Without such a plan, FHWA's ability to monitor implementation and measure the impact of the SRTS program is hindered. To enhance FHWA's oversight, we recommended that FHWA develop a comprehensive plan to monitor and evaluate the SRTS program. In August 2011, FHWA issued an evaluation plan for the program, which focuses on the extent to which children are being reached by the program and the extent to which changes in walking and bicycling and safety occur. In addition, FHWA issued a SRTS Noteworthy Practices Guide to provide examples of noteworthy SRTS program practices and management approaches, including a section on program evaluation. These actions should help improve FHWA's oversight of the SRTS program and ability to measure the program's impact.

    Recommendation: To enhance the oversight of the SRTS program, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FHWA, to develop a comprehensive plan to monitor and evaluate the program. The plan should include the following three components: (1) an assessment of the extent to which states are currently evaluating the progress of their SRTS programs, and a determination of whether and how those state evaluations can be incorporated into FHWA's overall evaluation of the SRTS program; (2) a requirement that states collect data relevant for evaluating the SRTS program--which should be specified by FHWA--and that the required data be listed in grant agreements between the states and grantees; and (3) reporting requirements and timeframes for FHWA's evaluation results.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, we reported that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) had established a clearinghouse to provide technical assistance for the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program. This clearinghouse had made an initial effort to talk with key stakeholders, include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about appropriate measures for health and environmental outcomes. However, additional work was needed to determine the feasibility of developing these outcome measures. We recommended that FHWA formalize its efforts to work jointly with CDC and EPA in developing health and environmental outcome measures. In 2010, the National Center for SRTS developed two projects related to evaluating the health and environmental impacts of SRTS, and convened an expert panel consisting of partners such as the CDC and EPA. These collaborative efforts enabled FHWA to conclude that outcome measures for the health and environmental impacts of the SRTS program are not feasible.

    Recommendation: To enhance the oversight of the SRTS program, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FHWA, to formalize collaborative efforts with the clearinghouse, CDC, and EPA to explore the feasibility of developing health and environmental outcome measures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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