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Minnesota joins Safe Routes to School program

Minnesota is one of 19 states in an expanded network for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar announced last week.

The project, under legislation primarily authored by Oberstar, DFL-8th District, aims to increase physical activity among children by building walkways and bike paths and eliminating safety hazards that prevent children from walking and biking to school.

"Childhood obesity is an epidemic in the United States. In 1980, 6 percent of children were obese; today, it's 17 percent. This is leading to serious health problems like diabetes and heart disease," said Oberstar. "The Safe Routes to School program is giving us the opportunity to change the habits of an entire generation to ensure that healthy children grow to be healthy adults."

The Safe Routes to School law has invested more than $500 million in bike paths and walkways nationwide, and more than 6,300 school districts are participating in the program. The Bemidji School District is exploring projects under the program.

Oberstar, chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and an avid bicyclist, considers funding for bicycle trails an important part of his transportation bills.

After a bike ride in August in Bemidji, he cited a Centers for Disease Control study on obesity that Type II diabetes had doubled in five years, that 75 percent of children 15 and under do not bike or walk. "They are driven to and from activities. We have an epidemic among children and this is an opportunity to change an entire generation."

Safe Routes to School involves establishing bike routes for elementary kids to take to school without crossing major traffic. With $500 million invested in the program, 6,300 school districts have participated.

"They are changing the habits of an entire generation of young people," Oberstar said. "That's probably the best thing a person could do in a career of public service."

He said that 16 million bicycles were sold last year, more than the 9.5 million cars and light trucks sold.

"We need to move from the hydrocarbon society to the carbohydrate society," he said.

The SRTS partnership establishes a bike coordinator in each of the 19 participating states. That person will be tasked with assisting government agencies, non-profits and policy makers in their efforts to get children to walk and bike to school. Funding for the SRTS Minnesota bike coordinator will come from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The partnership will also research state policies to identify the best practices and evaluate the progress of SRTS programs.

"I am proud to see that Minnesota has joined this national effort and is taking a leadership role in the Safe Routes to School National Partnership," said Oberstar. "There is no more important job than ensuring that our children are safe and healthy."