- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Amid a drawn-out fight over the budget, two Republicans are among the state legislators calling attention to plans seeking more funding to improve street safety for students walking to school.

It’s an issue that needs attention despite the state’s messy finances, supporters of the idea say, given that nearly five Illinois children are hit by cars every day within a block of a school, according to the Safe Routes to School program.

To highlight the need, Springfield Republican Reps. Tim Butler and Sara Wojcicki Jimenez walked from the state Capitol to a nearby school in downtown Springfield with about a dozen supporters, including parents, on Wednesday.

The Illinois legislation - sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook - seeks $5 million overall for the program, with a combination of state and federal aid. But since the state has been operating without a budget since July 1, it’s unclear where they would get the money. Gov. Bruce Rauner, a first-term Republican, and the Democrat-controlled Legislature remain deadlocked over a spending plan. Were the bill to pass, the state would foot $2 million of the costs.

The state’s Safe Routes to School program has a goal is to promote improvements to streets and sidewalks to create a safer environment for kids. During the tour participants commented on how difficult some sidewalks were to walk on. Across the state, advocates say street hazards include incomplete sidewalks and broken crosswalk signals.

“They’re uneven and some of the older trees have broken through the concrete so it creates a walking and biking hazard for the kids or even for parents that might be coming down with strollers,” said Bryan Finn, director of the downtown Springfield YMCA about the streets near the facility.

The Safe Routes to School program has paid nearly $50 million since 2005 for 500 projects that improve streets, add bike lanes and address gang violence by enlisting volunteers to accompany students during their walks.

“Students are feeling unsafe predominantly because of gang violence,” said Simone Alexander of Enlace Chicago, a community action group in the Little Village neighborhood. “That is not the only thing happening in Little Village but when we talk about safe routes to school that certainly bumps up to the number one issue families are having getting to and from school.”

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The bill is HB2623.

Online: http://www.ilga.gov.

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