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City official: State transit agencies block progress on street safety

The leader of the National League of Cities’ transportation efforts told a congressional panel that state transportation policies often prevent local governments from producing safer streets.

Elaine Clegg, president of the Boise, Idaho City Council, said Wednesday that rigid state and local policies were designed to ensure cars and trucks can go fast, not to help people get around safely. .

She cited several examples from Boise and small towns in Idaho, where she has helped local officials in her capacity as a project manager for Idaho Smart Growth, a nonprofit agency.

In Boise, the state and city recently worked together on the redesign of two roads bordering downtown. They are both one-way streets, with five lanes each. City officials, Clegg said, wanted to slow vehicles and make it easier for pedestrians to pass. But the state disagreed.

“When the city tried to add safer crossings, we were told there was no money and it didn’t meet the benefit-cost test for drivers,” Clegg said. . explained in a written testimony. “It still haunts me to this day that a pedestrian was killed at one of those intersections, a woman my age, and we still haven’t been able to add the necessary security infrastructure.”

John Tomlinson, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Transportation, said Road Fifty in an email that the department is working with cyclist and pedestrian safety advocates and local communities to develop educational materials aimed at saving lives. The agency also partners with local law enforcement to raise awareness of safety for cyclists and pedestrians in urban and rural areas of the state, he said.

“Our mission is focused on promoting safety, mobility and economic opportunity. For five consecutive years, Idaho is the fastest growing state in the nation,” he wrote. “This unprecedented federal and state transportation investment allows ITD and local road districts to not only proactively focus on infrastructure-related projects, but also those for all road users.”

Tomlinson did not provide comment on the specific situations described by Clegg.

But the episode illustrated some of the tensions facing elected officials and transport leaders as they determine how best to respond to a rapid increase in road deaths over the past two years. Road deaths in the United States in 2021 were 18% higher than they were the year before the start of the pandemic, reaching their highest level since 2005.

The Highways and Transit Subcommittee of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing on the ‘traffic safety crisis’ on Wednesday and, unsurprisingly, no consensus emerged about causes or solutions.

Several Democratic lawmakers blamed dangerous road design that prioritized auto travel over other forms of travel. Republicans have questioned the effectiveness of road safety initiatives such as Vision Zero and Complete Streets, which many cities have adopted over the past decade. A few GOP lawmakers have suggested that more police enforcement would help deter reckless driving.

Shawn Wilson, Louisiana’s secretary of transportation and president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, defended the work of state transportation agencies. He gave several examples of states using accident data to determine what kind of infrastructure improvements to prioritize.

But Wilson also told the committee that states need flexibility to meet the needs of their people.

“We continue to recommend to our federal partners to move away from potentially prescriptive requirements that would prevent the use of the most appropriate approaches and designs that will mitigate safety issues and improve transportation fairness for all users” , Wilson said in his written testimony.

Clegg, the Boise council president, said she has seen many examples of state departments failing to meet the needs of local communities.

“Freeway choices can cause real bloodshed when the design of freeways doesn’t connect their city but divides it,” Clegg said.

“Too often, accidents that maimed and claimed the lives of residents simply trying to cross the street are linked to design issues – dangerous railroad crossings, narrow and inconsistent sidewalks, and little space for outdoor dining or other local economic engines that make the city a great place. It doesn’t serve Idaho or small towns in every other state, or the drivers who are often forever haunted by the people they hit,” she said in her written remarks.

She told the committee that communities should not focus on expanding roads to meet traffic growth, as wider roads would attract more vehicles. Instead, she said communities should strive to provide residents with strong networks for multiple modes of transportation.

“Cities and towns have found that federal measures and designs rely too heavily on car throughput measures established in the era of freeway construction to keep single-use roads safe and moving, to high speed and limited access. But no city or town is just a highway – Main Street America in cities big and small has a multitude of access points and users needing to create safe and efficient access from their home to their destination” , Clegg explained in his written remarks.

She gave the example of a new design for an intersection near her daughter’s home in Boise, which is designed so that vehicles on the busiest road move quickly.

But drivers on the road less traveled can no longer make left turns there, forcing them to drive a quarter mile to turn around. The school district changed its bus routes, lengthening them, because making the U-turn would be too dangerous, Clegg said. In addition, local businesses are now more difficult to access.

“The choice to prioritize this throughput was made without analyzing any of these impacts,” she said.

Other Recommendations

The chairman of the board said these situations illustrate why cities need more control over federal transportation money and why Congress should ensure that safety measures “known to work on city streets and villages are on equal or even priority footing” over other considerations, including traffic flow. .

The National League of Cities also recommended:

  • Demand more transparency about how state transportation departments spend the federal money they receive from laws that distribute money to states through formulas. “Recipients have a responsibility to show how funding has been invested and how progress has been made to ensure the case for infrastructure investment is clearly presented,” Clegg said.
  • Analyze vehicle design to prevent large vehicles like trucks and SUVs from hitting pedestrians. Clegg said a truck driver hit and killed a retired couple in Boise while making a turn last year. The driver said he didn’t see the pedestrians. “The driver and the design of the car are responsible for being able to see and respond safely to people outside the vehicle,” Clegg said.
  • Offer more help to small communities, especially in terms of technical assistance. Clegg said an Idaho town she worked with used a baseball diamond scratching machine to scratch its roads because the state’s Department of Transportation did not consider crosswalks a priority for the city. ‘State. “But,” she told the committee, “it worked.”
  • Accelerate the release of federal road safety data. Nearly six months into 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has only offered preliminary data on traffic fatalities that occurred last year, Clegg noted.
  • Better link federally funded road safety research to updates to federal highway design standards, such as those included in the Uniform Traffic Control Devices Handbook.
  • Make the manual a better resource, instead of being an “impediment to safety improvement and innovation”.