Safe routes to schools: What happens next?

It took some bargaining between Republicans and Democrats — and some dickering between the House and the Senate — to pass a last-minute safe routes to school bill.

But it’s too early to tell how the new plan will work on the ground.

Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise

Assuming Gov. Butch Otter signs this bill — and the larger, $315 million-plus transportation bill attached to it — House Bill 334 would allow the state to siphon some of its newfound infrastructure money into sidewalks and walkways.

“In a few tragic cases, these unsafe walking conditions have contributed to pedestrians being hit and killed,” House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding said Wednesday, after the safe routes to school bill passed the Senate in the final hours of 2017 legislative session. “This legislation couldn’t come soon enough.”

The legislation came quickly — introduced and passed in the House on Tuesday, and passed by the Senate Wednesday. It’s not unheard of for a bill to zip through both houses in 24 hours, but it’s unusual.

The Idaho Transportation Department wasn’t cut out of the loop of these last-minute negotiations, spokesman Jake Melder said. But because the bill came along late in the session, the ITD has no plan in place.

In a Wednesday news release, Erpelding said HB 334 could funnel $3.7 million into sidewalks, crosswalks and pedestrian islands. He also rattled off a list of communities with shovel-ready projects: Driggs, Caldwell, Potlatch, Sandpoint, Idaho Falls and Middleton.

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Melder wouldn’t commit to a dollar figure — and said it’s too early to say how many projects would be good to go. “We’re still analyzing what (HB 334) actually means.”

Legislative leaders say HB 334 has its roots in 2015, and the highway bill that passed at the end of that session. Democrats were pushing for safe routes to schools money at the time, and renewed the push in 2017. Republican legislative leaders said HB 334 provided a vehicle to make good on a commitment to fund projects in school zones.

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise

Some House members wanted to insert safe routes to school language into Senate Bill 1206, the omnibus infrastructure bill. But senators resisted that idea, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder said. SB 1206 narrowly passed the Senate Tuesday, after a similar bill had died on the Senate floor six days earlier, and senators were worried about amendments that could jeopardize the omnibus bill.

Enter HB 334, which passed both houses with bipartisan backing.