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February 18, 2011 - 6:01pm

Rural Perspective on Complete Streets Legislation

posted by Timothy Hens in Albany, County, rural, Highway Funding, Complete Streets.

On a recent drive from Batavia to Geneseo I found myself, like several other vehicles, stuck behind a very slow moving piece of agricultural equipment that was taking up the entire lane and the paved shoulder. Although it was a bright sunny day in February, there were whiteout conditions from the snow blowing off the tops of the built-up banks along the shoulder of the road. It was challenging driving and being a County Highway Superintendent, I couldn’t stop thinking about the new “Complete Streets” legislation being considered by our State Legislature in Albany.

 A complete street is when all users, such as bicycles, pedestrians and wheelchairs, are considered in the design and construction of a roadway.  Common complete street initiatives include sidewalks, crosswalk enhancements, bicycle lanes, speed humps and other traffic calming measures. The idea of complete streets is an offshoot of the Livable Communities movement which is the latest urban planning fad. It is a noble initiative aimed at making our communities an easier place to live by making jobs, shopping, dining and medical needs all footsteps away. A sample outcome would be to have a senior housing complex less than a block from both a grocery store and the doctor’s office with sidewalks and paths in between and options for alternate means of transportation. 
 
On this fine February day, I just couldn't see how a complete street would accomodate a pedestrian or a bicyclist between the snow bank and the 18 foot wide Grouser travelling ahead of me.
 
The “Complete Streets” bill proposed by Albany would mandate that state and local governments study and consider making enhancements to roadways when building, re-building or rehabilitating streets with federal or state aid. The current legislation is backed and being pushed by AARP and several other groups as the demographic that benefits the most from these enhancements would be senior citizens. More senior pedestrians are killed by vehicles than any other age group. For this reason alone, it makes absolute sense to improve the safety of our roadways for all users. The bill, however, fails to differentiate between urban streets and rural roads. This lack of differentiation is one of many reasons why the New York State Association of Counties recently passed a resolution against the bill. 
 
A complete street might make perfect sense in Queens, but it has no place on a rural county or town road. Many of these roads are narrow with limited shoulders and often deep drainage ditches. They are used by farm equipment and often are covered in mud or manure. Widening one of these roads to accommodate even a bike lane would be a significant undertaking. The relocation of ditches triggers la engthy environmental review and possible involves the taking of additional right-of-way which is another lengthy and often controversial process. Often times, rural roads are “roads by use”, which means the landowners actually own the property to the centerline of the road and there is no established right-of-way. In this case, the municipality has no jurisdiction outside of the bounds of the roadway. Just imagine the disputes that would arise over trying to negotiate right-of-way with 40 or 50 separate land owners.
 
While, the proposed bill provides exceptions to complete street improvements based on lack of need and burdensome cost, the need for a study or evaluation is still required. The study process will add delays and costs to road projects that are already significantly under funded. In urban areas, most municipalities have their own well staffed engineering departments that could perform the studies. In rural counties and towns, often times there is no engineering function at all. In most cases, rural areas would need to hire an outside consultant to formally determine that there is no room for pedestrians or bicycles when a large piece of farm equipment travels a narrow rural road.  Do we need consultants to tell us that there are limited pedestriansa long a back country road with no houses?  These common sense decisions shouldn’t require an expensive study.
 
Most local governments already have a hard time keeping up with basic road maintenance. State highway funding has been relatively flat over the last 20 years while the price of oil and maintenance materials has skyrocketed. The burden of unfunded social service mandates has limited the capacity of local government to fund their own highway maintenance. This bill further misdirects funding and makes it harder to get the job done.
 
Where it makes sense, local governments already implement safety improvements that consider the needs of other users.  In the last 5 years, Genesee County has widened several roads to accommodate bicycle and pedestrian traffic along higher volume roads and in hamlet areas.  Several new road signs have also been added to aid disabled citizens.  All of these improvements have been made without state oversight and have been performed in a way that allows a balancing of the public interest at the local level.
 
The best course of action for our elected officials in Albany is to reject this bill and allow our local governments to decide what is best for their citizens. To add a bill that further detracts from highway funding and creates another mandate is counterproductive.
Nadine Lemmon
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I was glad to see Timothy Hens’ Op Ed on “Rural Perspective on Complete Streets Legislation”—it made me realize there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the proposed law and what the term “Complete Streets” will mean in rural areas. There are three key points I’d like to clarify: 1) Mr. Hens mistakenly states that the law would effect roads receiving “federal or state aid.” The law only encompasses projects that are receiving “federal AND state funding and are subject to department of transportation oversight” (emphasis added)—that one word, “and”, makes the world of difference. All projects that receive federal money must go through an extensive design review process, coordinated with the region’s DOT, and receiving final sign off from the Federal Highway Administration. It is a lengthy process, overseen by a qualified engineer, and includes the submission of a Design Report that is usually at least an inch thick. Mr. Hens states this proposed legislation will burden rural highway departments with the need to hire an “outside consultant” to perform an “expensive study.” This law only affects projects that already have to hire an engineer, and already have to go through an expensive study. The law will add one page of review in a 100-page document. I’m a Town Board member in a rural town in the Hudson Valley, with 56 miles of town roads. Over the past 50 years, there is only one project—on a chunk of road ¼ mile long in our hamlet—that would have been effected by this law. And it's a State road, not a local road. 2) Mr. Hess also makes the assumption that Complete Streets is about putting bike lanes on rural roads—meaning widening the road, acquiring expensive right-of-way, and doing “lengthy environmental review.” Complete Streets are not about widening roads in rural areas. I’m an active cyclist, and I live where I do because I enjoy slow traffic and curvy, rural roads. The last thing in the world I want is a wider road—wider roads induce more traffic and encourage faster speeds. Narrow roads, curves, stone walls, trees—these are the features that help to assure our rural roads are safe for all users. I’ve written an article about what “Complete Streets” mean in a rural area, you can find it here: http://blog.tstc.org/2010/11/04/the-challenges-of-completing-rural-roads/. 3) Mr. Hess implies that spending money on pedestrian and bicycle safety “misdirects funding”, and limits local governments’ ability to do basic highway maintenance. The truth is, this bill will have no effect on maintenance funding pots—the law states that it does not apply to “resurfacing, maintenance or pavement recycling projects”. Currently, 1% of our federal transportation funds are spent on bicycle and pedestrian safety, yet pedestrians comprise 22.5% of all traffic deaths in NY—the highest rate in the nation. From 2007-2009, over a 1,000 people died on our roads in NY. The roads we build today will be with us for the next 50 years—this law will help to make the safe for everyone, not just cars. Any questions/comments, please feel free to e-mail me directly! [email protected]
Timothy Hens
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Appreciate Nadine's post on my Op Ed. I'd like to point out that the exceptions/exemptions given to rural areas in the Complete Streets Law adopted in New York where only given after the NY County Highway Superintendent's Association lobbied to have the original legislation altered. The original legislation proposed did not provide an "out" for maintenance projects and did not exempt local projects from the required studies.

The adopted law is very beneficial to pedestrians and other road users in urban areas, but it was important to make the distinction between the requirements of city road users versus the users of rural county roads.

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