Time to complete more Complete Streets

Lawmakers need to act on $50m, but more needed

THE PANDEMIC has upended many things, including how many of us get around. One difference is a big increase in walking and bicycling. In every community, people are getting outdoors more often, which is good for our health and a change for the better.

But many of our roads and sidewalks were designed primarily with cars in mind. Retrofitting streets to be more welcoming and safer for people on bikes and foot has become more urgent.

Massachusetts can do something this month to encourage biking and walking. As legislators continue to wrangle over what to include in the final version of the transportation bond bill, they should absolutely increase funding for Complete Streets. Both the House and the Senate propose $50 million in funding for this popular and effective program.

Based on the need, a higher amount is justifiable; but that is unlikely in this environment and without more funding for transportation in general. $50 million will continue a successful program at current levels.

It is also important to set aside a portion of Complete Streets funding to ensure equity, such that at least one-third is targeted to communities with incomes below the average for the Commonwealth.

What are Complete Streets? Technically, they are roads that are designed according to contemporary guidelines to promote safety and accessibility for users of all modes.

In practice, Complete Streets are true public spaces that work for everybody who uses them. Whether you are walking, cycling, using transit, driving, shopping, or enjoying the outdoors. And whether you are 8 or 80, and regardless of your ability, a Complete Street is one that will welcome you.

Complete Streets have been shown to improve the value of property, business activity, health of people, and our communities. Massachusetts has endorsed Complete Streets in how it designs and builds state roads, and has encouraged local governments to do the same. In fact, more than half of all our cities and towns have an approved Complete Streets policy.

More recently, MassDOT has stepped up Complete Streets during the COVID-19 crisis. The “Shared Streets and Spaces” grant program, introduced last spring, funded projects that could be designed and implemented in just weeks or months. The recently announced Winter Streets and Spaces grants will do the same, with a requirement that projects are constructed by May 31. These grant programs fast-track ideas to make our outdoor spaces safer for walking, biking, and dining.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation awarded just over $10 million in 123 Shared Streets and Spaces grants to 103 cities and towns around the state. But underscoring the need and interest, this is just under one-third of the $34 million that was requested from 279 municipalities.

Complete Streets is now the standard for how roads are designed in Massachusetts, and the appeal of these tactical programs shows how much things have changed in just a few years. MassDOT has demonstrated that they can get this money out the door quickly, while cities and towns are stepping up and constructing popular projects.

But we should be implementing this vision at a much faster pace.

A case in point: the $570,000 awarded to Springfield in Complete Streets grants over the last several years is not meeting the need.

Starting in 2014, Springfield residents working with City officials developed a Complete Streets policy and prioritization plan.  The aim was to indicate that Springfield is a friendly place for riding bicycles with miles of new bicycle lanes and ready bicycle parking at libraries and parks. The team prioritized walkability improvements, including adding enhanced crosswalks. With MassDOT Complete Streets funding, Springfield has achieved nearly all of the projects included in its original five-year plan and is currently developing the list of next priorities. But these won’t be able to be implemented until there is additional MassDOT Complete Streets funding.

So while the Complete Streets program is a success on paper, in reality it is now at risk, because the money for this valuable program has run out. The final bond bill is being negotiated by a six-member conference committee before both branches vote it up or down, and the bill is sent to the governor for his signature.

Meet the Author

Betsy Johnson

Member, BikeWalk Springfield
Meet the Author

Josh Ostroff

Guest Contributor, Transportation for Massachusetts
Where both branches have settled on the same amount of funding, a higher amount than $50 million is unlikely, even though the program is stretched to meet demand. For the Complete Streets program to continue, it is critical for the Legislature to finish their negotiations and include this funding, and to ensure that a portion is set aside for lower income cities and towns.

Betsy Johnson works at WalkBike Springfield and Josh Ostroff is partnerships director at Transportation for Massachusetts.