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Cleveland passes Complete Streets: Parsing ODOT's 'cost more' quote

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/20/11 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices

Cleveland City Council adopted Complete Streets legislation last night. The city is now in the company of 283 cities and Metropolitan Planning Organizations with Complete Streets policies. And it joins a more exclusive group-only a few cities have successfully tied together Complete and Green Streets through legislation.

What are Complete Streets?

Complete Streets are "designed and operated to enable safe access for all users. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities must be able to safely move along and across a complete street," explains the national Complete Streets Coalition.

One mar on the good news: Ohio's transportation agency was quoted in the Plain Dealer perpetuating a myth that Complete Streets will cost more, and that they wouldn't support it with funding. Let us address these claims in order.

First, complete streets projects are being built across the nation for little more than the cost of paint for a bike lane and crosswalks and the decision to re-purpose a lane on the road that was built too wide to begin with. The benefits are well documented: Slimming down roads with bike lanes is a proven strategy for calming traffic and making travel safer for pedestrians, especially seniors and small children.

Safety on the roadways will get a boost in Cleveland. A report from Transportation for America found that pedestrians die at an alarmingly higher rate when cars driving above 35 mph hit them. "Despite the magnitude of these avoidable tragedies, little public attention – and even less in public resources – has been committed to reducing pedestrian deaths and injuries in the United States," T4A concludes. "On the contrary, transportation agencies typically prioritize speeding traffic over the safety of people on foot or other vulnerable road users."

The economic impact of Complete Streets is also documented. The Political Economy Research Institute report, "Estimating The Employment Impacts Of Pedestrian, Bicycle, and Road Infrastructure," examines job data from 2008 in Baltimore, MD. It found that road projects generate 11 to 14 jobs per $1 million on bike and pedestrian projects. Contrast that to seven jobs created through the same rates of spending on road infrastructure.

"Many of the ways to create more complete roadways are low cost, fast to implement, and high impact. Building more sidewalks and striping bike lanes has been shown to create more jobs than traditional car-focused transportation projects," the national coalition confirms.

Next, ODOT says if the city wants to spend up to 20% more on Complete Streets, it's their right, but they won't support it financially. On the surface, it sounds like the agency is being fiscally tough minded, but how convincing is the statement when taken in the context of ODOT's poor track record of not spending funds assigned for bike and pedestrian projects? ODOT has been known to gut those programs-to give back millions of federal transportation funds meant for bike and pedestrian projects-when the opportunities arise. These 'rescissions' or voluntary forfeitures have been going on for years. It happened in 2007 and in 2010 and it's happening again this year.

What are 'rescissions'? According to the League of American Bicyclists: "Periodically, Congress rescinds, or cancels, unspent transportation funds from State DOTs. Rescissions are essentially a bookkeeping measure, which allows the USDOT to take long unspent funds off the books. However, some state DOTs have turned them into an opportunity to gut neglected bicycle and pedestrian funding sources in order to preserve favored programs."

Congress again decided in April to let the state DOTs give back $2.5 billion in unspent funds. Will ODOT take most of their share from Transportation Enhancements (TE) and Congestion Mitigation & Air Quality (CMAQ) – which support bike and pedestrian projects? These programs make up around 7% of state transportation budgets, according to the League. They started an email campaign to ask Congress to instead support Safe Routes to School as a way of capitalizing on these funds.

With more metro areas adopting Complete and livable community policies, federal transportation funds are available for ODOT to tap if it decides it wants to help Ohio's metro areas build more Complete Streets.

In fact, President Obama's American Jobs Act includes $2.5 billion for complete streets (through TIGER and other sustainable land-use + transportation programs). Barb McCann, director of the Complete Street Coalition, reports here that cities with Complete Streets legislation have a better chance at receiving those funds.

Read the Cleveland Complete Streets ordinance.

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