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Walk To School: Busing wastes money and encourages sprawl and walking is healthier, anyway

Pittsburgh Post GazetteWednesday, October 03, 2007
By Thomas Hylton
Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Mass transit has commanded the headlines as Gov. Ed Rendell wrangles with two northwestern Pennsylvania congressmen, U.S. Reps. Phil English and John Peterson, over tolling Interstate-80 to raise more money for transportation, including $300 million more for urban transit.

Rural legislators say their constituents shouldn’t pay tolls to support buses and rail service in southwestern and southeastern Pennsylvania. Unmentioned in the debate is the state’s second- largest public transportation system — school busing.

Pennsylvania school buses travel more than 381 million miles annually at a cost of more than $1 billion. That’s nearly 75 percent of the cost of the state’s urban and rural transit authorities. Although the state provides about half the funding for both systems, school districts are automatically guaranteed a subsidy based on their aid ratio and miles traveled, no further questions asked.

For example, the Blairsville-Saltsburg School District in Indiana County recently announced plans to close its high school in Saltsburg Borough and bus those students an hour away to an enlarged Blairsville High School at an additional cost of $200,000 annually. Thanks to the state subsidy formula, district taxpayers will only pay $62,000 more. The commonwealth will make up the rest.

Generous subsidies for school busing are just one reason the number of students walking to school has plunged from 50 percent in 1970 to less than 15 percent today. In recent decades, hundreds of walkable neighborhood schools have been closed all across Pennsylvania, often to be replaced by sprawling mega-schools on the urban fringe.

These new schools spawn car-dependent development and drain the life from older communities. Statewide, the loss of neighborhood schools has been a major factor in what the Brookings Institution calls the “hollowing out” of Pennsylvania — disinvestment in older urban areas in favor of developing suburbs.

Alarmed by this trend, the state Department of Education and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association recently sponsored a new publication called “Renovate or Replace? The case for restoring and reusing older school buildings.” The booklet features essays by Gov. Rendell’s top cabinet officers, arguing that renovating older schools can save tax dollars, reinforce established communities and still provide facilities that meet 21st-century educational standards.

For example, state Secretary of Transportation Allen D. Biehler says Pennsylvania can’t afford to grow in the sprawling way it has in the past. Already, Mr. Biehler says, his department is short $1.7 billion annually to meet its obligations. “We need to cut down on excess driving by living and working in closer proximity,” he writes. “Walkable neighborhood schools are an important part of sustaining existing resources.”

A third of our children are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight, writes Dr. Calvin B. Johnson, secretary of health. “The fact is children could get most of the daily exercise they need just by walking 15 or 20 minutes to and from school,” he says. “And they would develop a healthy habit to serve them for a lifetime.”

The Mt. Lebanon School District is held up as a model. The district has not built a new school since 1963. Instead, it has renovated its two middle schools and seven elementary schools, most dating to the 1920s and 1930s, and will soon renovate its 1928 high school. The district’s architect estimates the renovated schools cost about 70 percent of the price of new construction, not including land acquisition.

In fact, a review of all school construction projects approved by the Department of Education in the last three years shows that new construction is nearly twice as expensive, per square foot, as renovations and additions, when total project costs are considered.

The No. 1 principle of green building design is to renovate and recycle existing buildings, writes Kathleen McGinty, state secretary of environmental protection. Renovations, she says, make the maximum use of existing materials and reduce demolition debris.

Thanks to its neighborhood school system, Mt. Lebanon enjoys among the lowest transportation costs of any district in the state. But its neighbor, Baldwin-Whitehall School District, has among the highest.

At one time, Baldwin-Whitehall had a substantial number of walkers attending neighborhood elementary schools like Mt. Lebanon’s. In 1984, the district consolidated its schools, going from 15 buildings to five, and began busing all its students. Today, Baldwin-Whitehall spends about the same, per pupil, as Mt. Lebanon, but dedicates nearly six times more money — $900 per pupil — to busing.

Today, Pennsylvania schools will join hundreds across the country holding special programs to celebrate national Walk to School Day. But you can’t walk to schools built in the middle of nowhere.

“Renovate or Replace” is a first step toward persuading school boards to think holistically when making school construction decisions. The role of public schools goes well beyond the education of our youth. Schools affect neighborhood stability, community character, student health, the environment and especially transportation.

If we want to revitalize our towns, protect our countryside and reduce transportation costs, retaining walkable neighborhood schools is a great place to start.

First published on October 3, 2007 at 12:00 am

Thomas Hylton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is president of Save Our Land, Save Our Towns, a nonprofit organization that published “Renovate or Replace” with a grant from the William Penn Foundation ( To download a copy, go to and click on “Neighborhood Schools.”

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