Driving up costs: Reconsidering school sites in an era of unpredictable gas prices

A long line of schoolbuses parked in Millburn, Illinois.

Fuel costs are rising rapidly, and individual drivers aren’t the only ones feeling the pain. School transportation systems around the country are struggling to adjust to cost increases. In a survey of school districts conducted last month, almost 76 percent of transportation directors report that rising fuel costs are affecting operations.

Unfortunately, in the past few decades many school districts have – literally – built gas price vulnerability into the system, often influenced by shortsighted state standards for school construction and renovation. For example, many states require schools to be built on excessively large lots to accommodate fields and parking.

As a result, more and more schools are built on the outskirts of communities, far away from the students they serve. While 87 percent of students lived within one mile of school in 1969, that number had dropped to 21 percent by 2001. Even when students live within walking distance, roads are often too hazardous for walking to be a safe option.

The alternative? Lots of buses and automobiles, which means lots (and increasing amounts) of money spent on gasoline and maintenance.

Some states, however, are leading the way with policies to encourage a return to community-centered schools located within walking distance of as many student homes and community amenities (such as parks and libraries) as possible.

For example, explains the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority revised school site recommendations in 2009. The State shifted away from recommending a specific acreage and now asks that districts submit information on the desired learning environment when they apply for state school construction funding. Other states that have eliminated minimum acreage requirements include South Carolina (2003), Rhode Island (2005) and Minnesota (2009).

In 2010, New Hampshire’s legislature passed a law requiring school construction or renovation plans to comply with the State’s statutorily adopted principles of smart growth and its comprehensive plan. It also “limits additional land acquisition in school renovation projects to only that which is necessary to ensure the safe flow of traffic.”

Because of rising fuel costs, school districts are cutting field trips, reallocating general fund dollars, and reducing repair funding to make ends meet. Twenty-two percent of districts have reduced bus services.

Gas prices will continue to fluctuate, and these short-term stopgaps won’t provide long-term sustainability. As one part of the solution, state government can help make sure more schools are located in places that minimize transportation costs – and maximize the number of dollars available for student education and enrichment.

For more state policy recommendations to encourage community-centered schools, see Policies That Work: A Governors’ Guide to Growth and Development.

State policy to support Main Street (Part 3 of 3): On the ground in Fowler, Colorado

Fowler, Colorado: Location of the proposed SMSI intersection improvement project at the downtown intersection of St. Hwy 50 and St. Hwy 167 (Main St.). Pictured in the lower righthand corner is a draft intersection improvement plan: click on the image to see the full-size version. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Hazlett)

In the first two parts of this series, we looked at the challenges facing Main Streets and spoke with Susan Kirkpatrick, former Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, about the Sustainable Main Streets Initiative (SMSI) to see how state government can be part of the solution. In this third part, we ask: What impact does this state-led program have at the ground level – on Main Street itself?

The impact of the SMSI can be seen in Fowler, a town of just over 1,200 people, which was one of five Colorado communities selected to pilot the initiative. Being selected as a SMSI pilot community “planted a seed of enthusiasm in the general community that has also carried over and further helped to create positive energy and interest in other local projects, such as the renewable energy efforts currently underway in our town,” writes Nancy Hazlett, Fowler’s SMSI Project Champion. She continued:

The SMSI project not only launched a worthwhile traffic/pedestrian safety project, but has also offered great opportunities for structured community education, which will be beneficial as we proceed with other SMSI project goals related to issues such as housing and health care. There seems to be a renewed sense of community pride surfacing as a result of the overall effort.

An important lesson from Colorado’s SMSI program is that it does not always take new funding to make a difference. SMSI does not have a dedicated funding source. Instead, the initiative is intended to streamline the delivery of existing state programs and resources to local communities. And in Fowler, Nancy explains, the new system works:

Becoming more familiar with the technical assistance that is available and learning how we as a community canutilize it to our benefit has been very worthwhile! The SMSI project has provided great opportunities to break down longstanding barriers, whether perceived or real, that separated government from small town rural Colorado. We’ve learned that a tremendous amount of good can come with better understanding of purposes and processes of government.

Fowler was selected to pilot SMSI in part because the town had embraced sustainability. The town went through a community visioning process in 2009 to develop a 2035 Comprehensive Plan, which reflects the shared vision “to become one of the most sustainable communities in Colorado.”

Fowler residents participate in a public meeting regarding the Main Street intersection improvement project. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Hazlett)

Fowler residents pride themselves on their Main Street, which is infused with Western small-town culture and features many historic structures. They envision a Fowler in 2035 that invests in these downtown assets while embracing new economic opportunities, including alternative energy. Achieving economic, environmental, and social sustainability is a big vision for a small town, and their leadership is gaining recognition – Fowler recently won the Wirth Chair Sustainable Cities Award.

Colorado’s Sustainable Main Streets Initiative is a great example of state government stepping up to support small town downtowns, even during a time of budget constraints. Coordinating and improving the delivery of existing services helps communities like Fowler make sure Main Streets remain a quintessential part of American culture.


Check out the previous posts in this series:

Smart investment helps states to reinvent economies

Smart state transportation investments can help reinvigorate economies. (Image Credit: EPA Smart Growth)

A multi-disciplinary panel at the Brookings Institution on February 25, 2011 called for states to invest in infrastructure to reinvent their economies. Bruce Katz, Vice President and Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, emphasized the states’ critical role as investors in education, innovation and infrastructure and as the “laboratories of democracy.” State and local governments are the primary investors in the cornerstones of economic growth, accounting for 80% of public spending on K-12 education and 74% of spending on both higher education and infrastructure.

Panelists Governor Ed Rendell (PA) and Mike Finney, CEO of Michigan Economic Development Corporation, emphasized the need for governors to get their own houses in order to effectively coordinate and focus investment. “Government that doesn’t invest in its own growth will wither and die.” Pennsylvania and Michigan each established an economic supra-cabinet to coordinate the efforts of the various agencies devoted to the development of the economy, transportation, workforce and communities. Through coordination and investment, Pennsylvania ranked 11th in the nation for job growth in 2010.

On transportation spending, Matt Kahn, Professor of Economics at UCLA, explained the need to “Fix it First, Expand it Second, Reward it Third – A New Strategy for America’s Highways.” Tyler Duvall, Associate Principal at McKinsey and Company, and Robert Puentes, Senior Fellow at Brookings, cited the need for states to upgrade their tool-kits to meet investment challenges by, for example, incorporating cost/benefit analysis into decision-making processes, implementing asset-pricing, and enacting state legislation to enable public/private partnerships. He observed that “government will help those who help themselves, like going directly to the voters and not waiting for Federal funds or an increase in gas tax.”

The Governors’ Institute on Community Design is developing state workshops to: prioritize transportation spending, develop strategic approaches to state economic development, channel investment to infrastructure-rich redevelopment areas and adopt new design approaches for communities hit hard by foreclosures and vacancies. States will need these and other sound strategic and programmatic approaches to fulfill their destiny as laboratories of democracy and effective stewards of infrastructure funds.

See also: “New report from Brookings Institution advocates for road repair and maintenance” (Smart Growth America)

State policy to support main street (Part 2 of 3): An interview with Susan Kirkpatrick

GICD’s last post discussed the important cultural and economic role of well-designed small town downtowns – and identified the need to reverse years of disinvestment through better planning practices. Fortunately, some states are leading the way and have undertaken policy efforts to revitalize their Main Streets.

We spoke with Susan Kirkpatrick, former Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, about one such effort launched by the Ritter Administration in 2010: the Sustainable Main Streets Initiative (SMSI).

Governors’ Institute on Community Design: Tell us about the Sustainable Main Streets Initiative. How did it start? What does it mean for Colorado communities?

Susan Kirkpatrick: The state of Colorado and many of its cities and towns are experiencing very serious budget challenges. The Sustainable Main Streets Initiative was a yearlong pilot project in 2010 to test a model for state/local cooperation to leverage scarce resources. Former Governor Bill Ritter sought to break down silos among state agencies and across existing community development organizations to leverage resources and expertise to assist local communities achieve specific desired outcomes. [GICD note: more information on desired community outcomes and guiding principles can be found here (PDF).]

GICD: Why create a program focused on main streets?

SK: One way to identify a vital community is to look at its “Main Street”, the place where citizens go to shop, work, and gather to talk and to celebrate. The town square is an essential element of human history but some of Colorado’s main streets are declining and the Ritter administration thought we could do more to help, in spite of our financial constraints.

Colorado has been part of the branded Main Streets® program from the National Trust for Historic Preservation which works in a systematic way to help with revitalization but we wanted to bring a broader team of players from state agencies to work with local citizens on downtown improvement. That is why we created the program focused on main streets.

GICD: Why is it important for state government to support community design and planning? Isn’t that a local issue?

SK: Local government is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution; local governments exist by virtue of state legislative direction. In Colorado, state agencies have great respect for local control and preferences but we also recognize our responsibility for community vitality. Just think about how state highways affect community design and planning! Imagine how difficult it would be for a small town to ensure water quality for visitors without oversight and assistance from a state agency. States and their local cities and towns are partners in the pursuit of quality of life for citizens, though it is hard to break down the silos to make the partnerships more effective.

What sorts of efforts have you seen in the pilot communities since the Sustainable Main Streets Initiative was launched?

SK: Two of the pilot communities, Monte Vista and Fowler, developed agreements with the Colorado Department of Transportation for meaningful improvements for pedestrians in their downtowns. The City of Rifle created a plan to redevelop an important commercial site at the entrance to its downtown. The area in Denver known as Five Points created a Master Plan for the district that has been incorporated into the City of Denver’s neighborhood planning process. This was a breakthrough for Five Points. These specific outcomes were achieved in spite of the very short timeframe – eight months of work by state agency personnel and community volunteers.

The below video, from late 2010, explores in greater detail the innovative Sustainable Main Streets Initiative launched during the final year of Governor Ritter’s Administration:




The Sustainable Main Streets Initiative brought together multiple state agencies to support enhanced livability in communities around Colorado. In the third and final part of this GICD series on small town downtown design, we will look at the exciting changes underway in Fowler, Colorado – one of the SMSI pilot communities – and how state government has supported their livability efforts.