WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The 1990s are looking like a Saharan desert in terms of federal assistance to city and town revitalization, new parks or environmental protection of our watersheds.
The $151-billion transportation bill the Congress passed in December may, however, prove a startling exception. Jousting effectively for the first time ever with the asphalt-and-concrete lobbies, environmentalists and bike advocates were able to get set-asides and flexible fund features written into the bill.
The result could be several billions of dollars for funding of bikeways and greenways, ''rails to trails'' programs, pedestrian zones and landscaping of roads and transit facilities.
Divvying up the pie now falls chiefly to states and especially metropolitan planning organizations. They'll have broad latitude to decide just how the transportation dollars are spent for highways, how much for mass transit and how much for ''kinder and gentler'' transportation alternatives.
The process offers a big opportunity -- and challenge -- to citizen groups. Will they be able to ''go up against the big boys'' and actually get the quality-of-life projects funded for their communities?
Yes, says Anne Lusk -- prime mover behind the successful recreation path in Stowe, Vt. -- provided they enter the fray with determination and savvy. Community advocates, she argues, will have to go in with a good case based on population, use, location, availability of land. If they can show the real demand and need, they can get the money.''
The case ought to be a strong one. Paths and greenways through communities are not only great for recreation; they can provide alternative ways for people to walk or bike to work. They relieve both road congestion and air pollution. And if they're linked to schools, they also provide a way for children to get out of the family car pool and onto their own bikes.
Ms. Lusk is offering a new and intriguing wrinkle to the greenway argument. Why not, she suggests, link new or expanded paths with one of the nation's most compelling needs: better science education for its children?
''My ideal is to have bikeways and walkways created to lead into the schools,'' Ms. Lusk says. ''Kids and teachers would walk right out the door for class and in their daily field trips discover lichens, pond skimmers, tadpoles, maple skimmers.''
Science education -- now deadly dull in many schools -- could be made alive, interesting, relevant that way, Ms. Lusk argues. And indeed, variants of the school-trail-science connection are perking up around the country.
Denver has a ''Greenway Experience'' focused on the Platte River as it flows through the city. Some years ago, high-school teacher Carl Crookham and his students began researching the ecology of the area. Today Mr. Crookham organizes teen-agers who've been school dropouts to conduct four-hour tours of the greenway for younger students and the public.
In North Carolina, more than 80 schools applied last year to be part of a new program -- ''Using the Outdoors to Teach Experimental Science.'' The 10 winning schools not only get special training for their teachers, but money to create an array of schoolyard wildlife habitats -- butterfly gardens, bird-feeding and observation stations and mini-ponds for small aquatic animals.
In Boise, Idaho, the Ada County Centennial Committee has organized an educational corridor along the Boise River Greenway. Teachers are given workbooks on the greenway's ecology to use in taking their classes on field trips.
The Boston GreenSpace Alliance got foundation funding for grants of up to $3,000 for more than 25 school projects. At a middle school in the Mattapan neighborhood, teachers, parents and volunteers totally renewed the grounds with plantings and integrated the project into class studies. At Roxbury's Martin Luther King School, a science class planted major shrubbery and then monitored visiting birds and insects.
Environmental education is particularly critical for children in poor urban neighborhoods, the Alliance argues: ''They grow up in degraded environments, subject to air pollution, lead in the soil and other environmental hazards.''
Can all these initiatives be tied back into transportation facilities -- and federal funding? In a way it seems unlikely.
But a society trapped for funds has to be resourceful. Each pot of public money ought to serve multiple goals. Isn't a trails-to-classrooms strategy smart national and local policy if it helps haul our kids out of the cellar in international science achievement tests? Ms. Lusk hopes to persuade Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander to endorse her idea, which she calls ''108,000 new science classrooms for America'' -- the total of the country's elementary, middle and high schools.
The refreshing thing about the new transportation act is that it gives more authority to states and communities and invites them to think unconventionally -- ''out of the box'' -- on how they want to use the funds.
Now's the question: Will they?
Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.