Connecting state and local government leaders
The Idaho city council president told congressional lawmakers that state policies are designed to make sure vehicles go fast. She and others offered local solutions to make roads safer for drivers and pedestrians.
The head of the National League of Cities’ transportation efforts told a congressional panel that state transportation policies often prevented local governments from producing safer streets.
Elaine Clegg, the president of the Boise City Council in Idaho, testified Wednesday that rigid state and local policies were designed to make sure cars and trucks could go fast, not to help people get around safely.
She cited several examples from Boise and from small towns in Idaho, where she has helped local officials in her capacity as a projects manager for Idaho Smart Growth, a nonprofit agency.
In Boise, the state and city recently worked together on redesigning two roads along the edge of downtown. They are both one-way streets, with five lanes a piece. City officials, Clegg said, wanted to slow down vehicles and make it easier for pedestrians to cross. But the state disagreed.
“When the city attempted to add safer crossings, we were told there was no money and that it did not meet the benefit-cost test for drivers,” Clegg explained in written testimony. “It still haunts me today that a pedestrian was killed at one of those intersections, a woman about my age, and we still have not been able to add the needed safety infrastructure.”
John Tomlinson, a spokesperson for the Idaho Transportation Department, told Route Fifty in an email that the department works with bicycle and pedestrian safety advocates and local communities to develop educational materials focused on saving lives. The agency also teams up with local law enforcement to raise awareness of bicycle and pedestrian safety in both urban and rural areas of the state, he said.
“Our mission is focused on advancing safety, mobility and economic opportunity. For five years in a row, Idaho is the fastest growing state in the nation,” he wrote. “This unprecedented investment in transportation on the federal and state level allows ITD and local highway districts to not only focus proactively on infrastructure related projects, but also those geared toward all road users.”
Tomlinson did not provide comments about the specific situations Clegg described.
But the episode illustrated some of the tensions facing elected officials and transportation leaders as they determine how best to respond to a rapid rise in traffic deaths over the last two years. U.S. roadway fatalities in 2021 were 18% higher than they were the year before the pandemic began, 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 “roadway safety crisis” Wednesday, and, not surprisingly, no consensus emerged on the causes or the solutions.
Several Democratic lawmakers blamed dangerous road design that prioritized automobile travel over other forms of travel. Republicans questioned the effectiveness of road safety initiatives like Vision Zero and Complete Streets, which many cities have adopted over the last decade. A few GOP lawmakers suggested more police enforcement would help deter reckless driving.
Shawn Wilson, Louisiana’s transportation secretary and the 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 crash data to determine what kind of infrastructure improvements should be given priority.
But Wilson also told the committee that states needed flexibility to meet the needs of their people.
“We continue to recommend that our federal partners steer away from potentially prescriptive requirements that would prevent use of the most appropriate approaches and designs that will mitigate safety challenges and improve transportation equity for all users,” Wilson said in his written testimony.
Clegg, the Boise council president, said she had seen many examples of state departments not responding to the needs of local communities.
“Highway choices can cause real bloodshed when highway design does not connect their town but divides it,” Clegg said.
“Too often, crashes that have maimed and taken the lives of locals simply trying to cross the street connect back to design issues – unsafe crossings, narrow inconsistent sidewalks, and little space for outdoor dining or other local economic drivers that make the city a great place. This doesn’t serve Idaho or the small towns in all the other states, nor does it serve the drivers who are often haunted forever by the people they hit,” she said in her written remarks.
She told the committee that communities should not focus on expanding roads to accommodate growing traffic, because the wider roads would attract more vehicles. Instead, she said communities should be working on giving residents robust networks for several modes of transportation.
“Cities and towns have found that federal measures and designs rely too heavily on car throughput measures set during the era of freeway building to keep single-purpose, high-speed, limited access roadways safe and moving. But no city or town is only a highway – Main Street America in cities small and large have a multitude of access points and users with a need to create safe and efficient access from their homes to their destinations,” Clegg elaborated in her written remarks.
She gave the example of a new design for an intersection near her daughter’s house in Boise, which is designed to keep vehicles on the busier road moving quickly.
But drivers from the less-busy road can no longer make left turns there, which forces them to travel a quarter of a mile out of their way to make a U-turn. The school district changed its bus routes, making them longer, because performing the U-turn would be too dangerous, Clegg said. Plus, businesses at the corner are now harder to get to.
“The choice to prioritize that throughput was made without analyzing any of these impacts,” she said.
The council president said those situations illustrated why cities needed more control of federal transportation money, and why Congress should ensure that safety measures “known to work on streets inside cities and towns are given equal footing if not priority” to other considerations, including traffic flow.
The National League of Cities also recommended:
- Requiring more transparency on how state transportation departments spend the federal money they receive from laws that distribute money to the states through formulas. “Recipients have a responsibility to show how the funding was invested and how progress has been made to ensure that the case for infrastructure investment is made clearly,” Clegg said.
- Analyze vehicle design to prevent large vehicles like trucks and SUVs from hitting pedestrians. Clegg said a driver in a truck struck and killed a retired couple in Boise while making a turn last year. The driver said they did not see the pedestrians. “Both the driver and the car design are responsible to be able to see and safely respond to people outside the vehicle,” Clegg said.
- Offer more help to smaller communities, especially when it comes to technical assistance. Clegg said one Idaho town she worked with used a machine for striping baseball fields to stripe its roads, because the state transportation department did not consider crosswalks a state priority. “But,” she told the committee, “it worked.”
- Speed up the release of federal traffic safety data. Nearly half a year after 2021 ended, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has only offered preliminary data on the road deaths that occurred last year, Clegg noted.
- Better connect federally funded research on traffic safety with updates to federal road design standards, like those included in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.
- Make the manual a better resource, instead of a “roadblock to safety improvements and innovation.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.