MAKING “COMPETE STREET” OPERATIONAL: MassDOT Actives “Active Streets Certification (and Grant)” Program

August 20, 2014

City after city has found that making their streets safer and friendly for everyone – more walkable, bikeable, transit accessible and “socializable” – makes them more attractive to current and prospective residents and businesses. Not to mention the positive impact on reducing pollution, promoting public health, and dealing with climate change issues. The basic idea of a Complete Street is pretty straightforward: a travel corridor that has specific infrastructure for all modes including cars, bikes, foot, and (if present) buses, trucks, and trolleys. (Although having a multi-use – bike and walk – path alongside a railroad track is now allowed in Massachusetts, this combination is beyond the scope of most Complete Streets policies.)

However, turning this goal into design is complicated. Often, motor-focused traffic engineers continue to prioritize car capacity while including the minimally allowed “amenities” for everything else. Even well-meaning designers have trouble identifying and balancing possible friction points between pedestrians and cyclists. And few, if any, US Transportation Agencies have picked up on the European insight that the best way to relieve urban car and transit congestion is to decisively prioritize bicycling.

While some Complete Streets action occurs on the initiative of individual road designers, a more typical starting point is the adoption of an agency, municipal, or state-wide Complete Streets policy – a signifying event also endorsed by the National Complete Streets Coalition (now part of the national Smart Growth Alliance).

In Massachusetts, several broad coalitions including the ACT Fresh Coalition organized by the Mass Public Health Association and the Transportation for Massachusetts Coalition (T4Mass), pushed for and won Legislative inclusion of a $50 million Complete Streets Certification And Grant Program (H.4046 Acts of 2014) as part of the state’s recent Transportation Bond Bill. (Full disclosure: LivableStreets Alliance is part of ACT Fresh and I sit on the Coalition’s Steering Committee.) Being part of the Bond Bill means that the Administration has the authority to set up the program, but does not imply any requirement that it do so. Given the huge unfunded backlog of maintenance, repair, and new transportation projects it was not totally surprising that MassDOT initially decided to postpone activating this program.

However, in response to urgings from advocates, and in line with its own increasingly progressive policies, MassDOT has just announced that it will craft rules and procedures for the program, and perhaps even distribute “seed funds” this fall, before we all have to start over with the next Governor. Not only does this begin creating a “carrot” that will entice additional municipalities to move forward on this issue, it also positions the program for a quick ramp up under the next Administration.

Building on the National Complete Streets Coalition suggestions, the advocacy coalitions have also made some key recommendations for what criteria should be required for Complete Streets Certification. The recommendations state that while communities that have begun work on Complete Streets through the creation of Guidelines (e.g. Boston’s Complete Streets Design Guidelines, Cambridge’s Vehicle Trip Reduction and Parking Demand Management ordinances) should be recognized and eligible for some funding, it is important that the Certification Program set official adoption by the Board of Selection/City Council of a resolution or policy, by-law, or ordinance as the goal. The policy should, at a minimum, include the following:

> Acknowledgement that all projects on every road in the jurisdiction – whether state- or city-owned – are potential opportunities to include Complete Streets elements and a commitment that every maintenance, repair, full or partial reconstruction, sewer/water or utility work, or new construction/expansion activity implement the policy – including all Private Developments;

>The creation or identification of a municipal body or municipal staff (e.g., working group, task force, official committee, planning staff, transportation staff, etc.) to advise decision makers on implementation;

> Establishment or confirmation of a Review Process for Private Developments to ensure both that interior roads follow Complete Streets guidelines and that new gaps are not created in the area’s bicycle and pedestrian network;

> Provisions for clear and accountable exceptions to the policy;

> Identification and regular updating of information and training on best practices and resources for implementing Complete Streets;

> Base-line mode-share and accident data (particularly for pedestrians and bicyclists) be collected and, along with Complete Street mileage data, regularly shared with MassDOT – most simply by doing counts at specific locations at certain times twice a year for as long as a municipality is receiving funding, especially before and after Complete Streets improvements are done on a street or intersection.

To ensure that less affluent communities or communities with less planning staff capacity could benefit as much as possible from the program, the Legislation requires that at least a third of the funds be awarded to municipalities with a median household income below that Commonwealth’s average. The Coalition builds on that innovative beginning to propose that 10% of the funds be given to municipalities for Phase I work — capacity building to be used primarily for the non-construction type of work. Once an official policy was adopted, the project-ready municipality would be eligible for design and construction-oriented Phase II funds.

The full text of the Coalition’s letter outlining their recommendations follows…

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Proposed Rules and Regulations for the Complete Streets Certification Program

The Transportation Bond Bill signed into law by Governor Patrick in April 2014 (H.4046 An Act financing improvements to the Commonwealth’s transportation system) includes a $50 million authorization for the Complete Streets Certification Program. The creation of this program was a top legislative priority in the current legislative session for our organizations, and we are very excited about the potential of this program moving forward. This program could benefit cities and towns across the Commonwealth, and be an important step toward achieving goals of increased trips for walking, bicycling, and public transit.

Below are our organizations’ recommendations on the rules and regulations necessary to carry about the program as outlined in the legislation.

Criterion 1: The Complete Streets Policy

The cornerstone of this program is the adoption of a Complete Streets policy. The policy will be the document that guides the municipality as it takes the other certification steps and works to implement Complete Streets. For purposes of certification, a Complete Streets policy could be a resolution or policy adopted by the Board of Selectmen/City Council, a by-law, or an ordinance. Some communities have already taken steps to implement Complete Streets without any specific policy (e.g. Boston’s Complete Streets Design Guidelines, Cambridge’s Vehicle Trip Reduction and Parking Demand Management ordinances). We think it is important to enable municipalities that are already doing this type of work to be eligible for funding, but we also think codifying those efforts in a policy is important as well. We would recommend even cities that have shown progress being made toward implementation should enact some type of official policy.

The policy should, at a minimum, include the following:

> Acknowledgement that all projects are potential opportunities to include Complete Streets elements and a commitment that every project use those opportunities to implement the policy;

> The creation or identification of a municipal body or municipal staff (e.g., working group, task force, official committee, planning staff, transportation staff, etc.) to advise decision makers on implementation;

> Provisions for clear and accountable exceptions to the policy;

> Identification of information on best practices and resources for implementing Complete Streets.

The public hearing required by the legislation does not need to be called specifically and solely for the purposes of adopting this policy. It should, however, follow all applicable open meeting law requirements.

Criterion 2: Coordination with MassDOT

The requirement of the legislation that municipalities work with MassDOT to confirm the accuracy of the baseline inventory for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure came about from meetings of the Built Environment Community of Practice organized by DPH. It was suggested by MassDOT staff in attendance that this would be an opportunity for MassDOT to get a clear, accurate picture of the infrastructure currently in place in a given city or town which might inform its investments on state controlled roads going forward.

This could also be tied to the effort to acquire a statewide asset management system. If that system could capture bicycle and pedestrian facilities, it would be beneficial to municipalities as well as the state.

At a minimum, the municipality and MassDOT should meet once as part of this process. At the meeting, both groups could present the data they have, identify any inaccuracies, and then follow-up subsequently to ensure both groups are using correct data in making their decisions. Additional meetings could be beneficial if possible, but requiring them might be difficult both for MassDOT and municipal staffing budgets.

Criterion 3: Establishing or Confirming a Review Process for Private Developments

The goal of this requirement is to ensure that new gaps are not created in the bicycle and pedestrian network when larger private developments are constructed. The goal is not to require homeowners to pay for the cost of these improvements, but rather the developers of the projects or sub-divisions would incorporate Complete Streets infrastructure into their projects.

Most communities have some type of review in place for private development projects such as these (e.g., site plan review and subdivision regulations). For these communities, a review of existing regulations/processes will be required and recommendations for addressing gaps will be made within two (2) years of certification. For communities without this type of process, this program could potentially be used as a catalyst to develop a process, both for Complete Streets and other infrastructure requirements.

Criterion 4: Procedures for Projects on Municipal Rights-of-Way

This is a critical requirement for the continued success of the Complete Streets Certification Program. Complete Streets should be considered not only as part of large roadway reconstruction projects, but also whenever municipal DPW’s are doing regular maintenance work. Additionally, traffic rules and orders issued by the chief elected officials should align with the implementation of Complete Streets to avoid policies being at cross purposes.

The procedures a municipality identifies or establishes under this requirement should ensure that any time work of any type is done on any road, the inclusion of Complete Streets infrastructure is considered, even if it is ultimately not included due to the previously mentioned exceptions of the policy. Planning documents should be consulted whenever any type of work is to be done on a municipal road, whether those documents are bicycle and pedestrian plans or more general plans. If appropriate plans do not exist, municipal staff should work with residents to identify areas where improvements are needed.

These opportunities include, but are not limited to:

> Full roadway reconstruction

> New roadway construction

> Resurfacing

> Restriping

> Sewer and utility work

Criterion 5: Setting a Municipal Mode-Shift Goal

As an additional method of keeping the municipality focused on implementing Complete Streets, the requirement to set a municipal level goal for mode shift was included in the program. However, given the complexities of measuring mode shift, it was never expected that a certified municipality would be able to accurately measure each and every trip taken by its residents.

The most efficient method of measuring this for an individual city or town would likely be to identify a small number of important intersections or destinations to do counts before and after new complete Streets infrastructure has been added. Additionally, this goal could be tied to work being done in the community around Safe Routes to School.

It is important that it include some measurable statistics and parameters. Doing counts at specific locations at certain times twice a year for as long as a municipality is receiving funding should provide data that shows the effects of the Complete Streets infrastructure.

Funding Structure

While the general structure of the Complete Streets Certification Program was modeled after the Green Communities Program, it might be best to consider a slightly different method for distributing the grants. Given the wide range of work already being done, some municipalities may be able to show how they meet criteria already whereas others may need to take more time to move in that direction.

For Green Communities, a municipality needs to meet all of the criteria before it receives funding. Given the nature of the work that certification would require for Complete Streets – review of existing processes, traffic counts, working with MassDOT – splitting the funding into two categories could potentially work. The first phase, or capacity building phase, would be a smaller amount to be used primarily for the non-construction type of work.

The second phase, or implementation phase, would be focused more on projects and infrastructure. However, it would be important that at least one of the criteria, specifically the passing of a policy, be completed before any funding is made available. Phase 2 funding should be made available only to those communities that have met all of the other criteria and are project ready.

If a municipality were able to show it has met the criteria related to the capacity building phase already, it would move directly to the implementation phase.

The only stipulation included in the legislation regarding funding is a requirement that not less than 33% of the available grant funding be awarded to municipalities with a median household income below that Commonwealth’s average. This important provision was added by the legislature to ensure that less affluent communities or communities with less planning staff capacity could benefit as much as possible from the program. While this requirement calls for a minimum of 33% to be awarded to these municipalities, that should not be seen as the upper limit for funding to be directed to such municipalities.

Beyond that requirement, we would recommend that 10% of the available funding be awarded for “Phase 1” grants as described above, and the remaining 90% be awarded for “Phase 2” grants. An appropriate starting point for the formula to disburse grants to approved applicants would be the Ch.90 program, but funding decisions should also take into account a municipality’s commitment to spend its own local dollars, including any funds received from the state, on these efforts as well.

We have been working as a coalition to implement this program, and we would be happy to continue working with MassDOT to refine these regulations. Many of the groups in this coalition have seats on the advisory committee created by the legislation, so appointing members to that committee quickly would give structure to our efforts going forward. We believe that with these recommendations, this program will be a successful step toward cities and towns across the Commonwealth implementing Complete Streets.

Municipalities of every shape and size are eager to work on Complete Streets because they know it makes them more attractive to their current and prospective residents. We believe that the Complete Streets Certification Program could expand this work to even more cities and towns, and serve as a way to leverage local investment in the types of projects that will advance MassDOT’s policy goals such as Mode Shift and Green House Gas Emissions Targets.

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Previous related postings include:

> COMPLETE STREETS AS AN ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY: The Green Beyond The Paint

> COMPLETE STREETS: Design Elements, New Priorities, Means To An End

> EFFECTIVE AND DEMOCRATIC CITY (AND TRANSPORTATION) PLANNING: Neither Top-Down nor Bottom-Up Is Enough

> SLOWING TRAFFIC TO A TARGET SPEED: How To Make Our Streets Safer

> CAMERAS, TERRORISM, AND TRUST: Fears and Memories Across the Generational Divide

> CIRCLING THE BLOCK: Saving Money, Time, and Aggravation Through Parking Reform

> ACTIVE TRANSPORTATION CREATES HEALTHY COMMUNITIES: How To Use Your Roads To Lower Your Doctor (and Insurance) Bills

 

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