Complete Streets Legislation Takes Build-It-and-They-Will-Bike Approach

Attendees at town and city council meetings often hear complaints about “unfunded mandates” from the state.  In 2010, the General Assembly established an Office of Regulatory Reform (ORR) to address a generally acknowledged surfeit of regulations in the state.  And the cost and efficiency of infrastructure maintenance is a perennial question in Rhode Island.

The most effective limit on mandates and regulations would be to cease their creation, so even something as positive sounding as the complete streets bill (S2131 and H7352) deserves closer scrutiny:

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Louis P. DiPalma (D-Dist. 12, Middletown, Newport, Little Compton, Tiverton) [and Rep. Peter F. Martin (D-Dist. 75, Newport)], requires the state to use “complete street” design features in all federal- and state-funded road construction projects, with an eye not only toward motorists, but also bicyclists, public transportation users and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.

The goal is to plan streets that encourage people to use healthy, greener transportation modes whenever possible, contributing to their own health as well as the wellbeing of the environment.

The archetypal “complete street” has three lanes (one heading in each direction and a third for left-hand turns), lanes for bicycle traffic, and sidewalks.  In essence, the legislation would require the state Department of Transportation to develop processes to ensure that all roadway projects conform with the “complete streets” principle, allowing for evidence that “fully demonstrates with supporting documentation which shall be available to the public” that one of the following exceptions should apply:

(1) Use by bicyclists and pedestrians is prohibited by law, such as within interstate highway corridors; or

(2) The cost would be disproportionate to the need as determined by factors including, but not limited to, the following: (i) Land use context; (ii) Current and projected traffic volumes including non-motorized traffic; and (iii) population density; or

(3) Demonstrated lack of need as determined by factors, including, but not limited to: (i) Land use; (ii) Current and projected traffic volumes including non-motorized traffic; and (iii) population density.

Asked whether there is evidence that Rhode Islanders want access to this sort of roadway, Senator DiPalma told the Current, “I have no facts/data to say either way.”  However, he cited the support of AARP RI, the Conservation Law Foundation, Audobon Society, Sierra Club, Clean Water Action,  and Bike Newport, as well as supportive resolutions from the governing bodies of Newport, South Kingstown, Middletown, Portsmouth, Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Providence, and North Smithfield.

Asked whether anybody has assess the likely monetary cost of implementing the legislation, DiPalma said, “I’m not aware of any fiscal note associated with Complete Streets, and not certain it could be calculated since it would be project by project.” Addressing a Cleveland ordinance, last year, Ohio’s department of transportation expressed concern about the cost, and a staff report in South Lake Tahoe put the cost of “complete streets” for that city at $312 million.  That number, however, may have included complete rehabilitation of the roadways, whereas the legislation currently making its way through Rhode Island’s legislature would only apply to future projects that are more comprehensive than simple repaving.

RI Department of Transportation Deputy Chief Engineer Robert Smith says, “In most cases, we’re doing it already,” offering a pending project on East Main Road, south of Turnpike Avenue as an example.  Within the scope of the project, the designers planned for medians and roundabouts to allow for more pedestrian and bicycle traffic.  He notes that the speed of traffic will slow down but the overall time that it takes to move through the area may actually be reduced, because a traffic light will be eliminated and difficult turns will become more fluid.  By contrast, for a recent project in Little Compton, the DOT concluded that there wasn’t sufficient room to change the design of the road, especially considering the likelihood that non-motorized traffic would not be significant, anyway.

The objective of the legislation, according to Smith, is “to develop a mindset among the engineers that they need to consider all users.”  With the exception of “a little bit more documentation during the design process,” increased costs to the public would be incremental and blended with the general cost of road maintenance and development.

From the standpoint of a regulatory hawk, however, the question remains why the legislation is necessary.  Presumably, if the DOT were to stop incorporating “complete street” principles, there would be a reason, and the existence of a statute will make it more difficult to adjust.  At that point, on a “project by project” basis, the costs could be considerable — if, for example, it leads to sidewalks where there is no local interest in walking but insufficient objection to the expense to compile the necessary documentation.

As of this writing, the legislation has passed the Senate unanimously and is awaiting review by the House Municipal Government Committee.