Complete Streets Bill Passes in Minnesota

Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition
Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition

Today’s post was written by Ethan Fawley and Lynne Bly of Fresh Energy and the Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition.

On May 15, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty signed the 2010 transportation policy bill, which included the new state Complete Streets policy (.pdf)! The Complete Streets policy received bi-partisan support and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is supportive of moving forward with Complete Streets implementation (see their page on it). The following narrative summarizes the bill and reflects on some of the “lessons learned” through the work of the Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition over the last 10 months, and the previous strong groundwork that had been laid before that. Hopefully it can help advocacy efforts in your state!

Overview of the MN Complete Streets Legislation
The Complete Streets legislation puts in place mechanisms so that Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) considers such things as local community needs and all likely users of the road when designing roadways. Specifically, the law:

  • defines Complete Streets as “the planning, scoping, design, implementation, operation, and maintenance of roads in order to reasonably address the safety and accessibility needs of users of all ages and abilities. Complete streets considers the needs of motorists, pedestrians, transit users and vehicles, bicyclists, and commercial and emergency vehicles moving along and across roads, intersections, and crossings in a manner that is sensitive to the local context and recognizes that the needs vary in urban, suburban, and rural settings”
  • requires MnDOT to implement a Complete Streets Policy that applies to new construction, reconstruction, and repaving projects (it will not require retrofits);
  • requires MnDOT to work with stakeholders to implement the policy throughout nearly all aspects of MnDOT’s work–from road planning to maintenance–by reviewing or updating processes, standards, and requirements as needed;
  • encourages local adoption of Complete Streets policies and provides local governments that are interested in Complete Streets greater design flexibility–current requirements can lead to roads that cost more, are less safe, and do not serve a local community’s needs; and
  • requires MnDOT to report on implementation progress, training of staff, broader community engagement and any need for further legislative action to address barriers to implementation.

Related legislation also explicitly requires provision of bicycle and ADA-compliant pedestrian facilities for major bridge replacement or rehabilitation projects within incorporated areas or where there are connecting paths, trails, etc.

Pre-Coalition work
At the state level, several Complete Streets-style bills were introduced as far back as 2001, although none of them earned a committee hearing. In 2008, a law was passed requiring MnDOT to study the “benefits, feasibility, and costs” of a state Complete Streets policy. The study bill proved to be very important for earning MnDOT support for Complete Streets.

At the local level, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota (Blue Cross) has been supporting the work of more than 80 active living communities since 2006. Blue Cross began actively promoting Complete Streets in 2008 as a specific policy solution to help support public health through active living. Blue Cross support includes technical assistance on advocacy, communications, and policy development. They have also hosted more than a half dozen local workshops around the state where national experts like Barbara McCann came to introduce local engineers, planners, and elected officials to the details of Complete Streets and how it can help in their communities. From this work, so far six communities have passed Complete Streets resolutions or policies, while several additional communities are in various stages of pondering the idea. Additional local work on Complete Streets was also health-inspired, as AARP and traveler/writer/researcher Dan Buettner worked with the city of Albert Lea to become a “Blue Zone” that supports living a longer and better life. As part of that work, Albert Lea passed a Complete Streets subdivision ordinance to support more walking and biking.

Initial legislation to test the waters in 2009
In late 2008, Blue Cross brought together a group of about 10 non-profits to discuss how Minnesota could move a state Complete Streets policy forward. This initial group included diverse representation from health, environment, transportation, and safety organizations. Barbara McCann and Randy Neufeld offered strategic advice. There was a consensus to find and advocate for a “first step” bill in 2009 that would help to better understand the political dynamics around Complete Streets ideas. Fresh Energy and Transit for Livable Communities (TLC) brainstormed and worked to pass a bill that would require ADA-complaint pedestrian and bicycle facilities on MnDOT bridges that are being rebuilt as part of a major bridge repair program over the coming decade. The “first step” bill gave us a good stepping stone for working with MnDOT (we worked through a few of their concerns, and then they spoke favorably) and really gave us a sense of the types of questions that would be asked about a full Complete Streets policy. In the end, the 2009 bill was incorporated into an omnibus bill that strongly passed both houses, but was vetoed for unrelated reasons. The measure was included in 2010 legislation that has been enacted.

Forming the Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition
In June 2009, Blue Cross, Fresh Energy, and TLC reconvened to explore next steps for work on Complete Streets. At that time, the three groups felt that it was important to engage the full diversity of potential interest groups around Complete Streets. We invited about 100 people/organizations to a July meeting to discuss next steps, and 40 people came out. At that meeting, the group decided to form the Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition (Coalition) to connect and empower groups interested in first passing a state Complete Streets policy, and then working to foster local implementation.

The Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition
The Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition

Creating a strategic campaign
Randy Neufeld joined the Coalition for an August 2009 strategy session to discuss how to move forward on a campaign to pass a state Complete Streets policy. In the end, we decided to create four work groups (Coalition Building, Grassroots, Legislative and Policy Development, and Communications) to drive activity that would be coordinated by a Steering Committee. Blue Cross, Fresh Energy, TLC, and the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota all agreed to be on the Steering Committee, and many, many others participated through the four work groups.

As an initial step, the Coalition decided to focus effort to achieve a strong MnDOT Complete Streets study to the legislature (which was submitted in December 2009). Through a combination of efforts, MnDOT came more and more to understand and appreciate the value of Complete Streets and recognize how it could add to and complement their work as a national leader on Context Sensitive Solutions. MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel backed Complete Streets, and the final study included a recommendation for a MnDOT policy on Complete Streets. It was a breakthrough for our effort secure MnDOT support. You can read MnDOT’s strong report on Complete Streets here.

Partnering with MnDOT
Six members of the Coalition met with MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel in November, 2009. He expressed support for Complete Streets but also concern about the challenge of trying to implement the “culture change” necessary solely through legislative action. He felt that it was more far-reaching for MnDOT to lead on Complete Streets, and he offered to partner with the Coalition to work on implementing a policy throughout the agency. The Coalition was, of course, very excited to partner with MnDOT and we began by sharing ideas on a vision for the work, work plan content, and finding final legislative language that would suit both MnDOT and the Coalition as well as a number of other stakeholders. Now that legislation has passed, we will continue to partner with MnDOT as they begin to engage a full group of stakeholders this July. We are hopeful that many of the barriers to Complete Streets can be addressed through this non-legislative, collaborative effort.

Legislative work
The 2010 legislative session began in early February, and our chief authors (Rep. Mike Obermueller from the Twin Cities suburb of Eagan and Sen. Tony Lourey from a rural area in northeastern MN, outside of Duluth) introduced the bi-partisan Complete Streets bill on the second day of session. The initial authors included 7 democrats and 3 republicans from all parts of the state.

Our communications team did a great job pulling together a press conference that 50 members of our Coalition attended along with members of the press. The related press release and outreach lead to several good articles, including a very positive editorial in the state’s largest paper the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In a year when serious budget shortfalls loomed, we worked hard with MnDOT to adjust the bill to minimize its fiscal impact, ultimately reducing costs to $52,000 which the agency accepted within its existing budget request.

As the bill was coming due for another committee hearing, the County Engineers Association expressed some concerns with a proposed pilot program outlined in the bill. The Coalition worked hard to collaborate with the county engineers on a solution, and a happy compromise was found immediately before the committee hearing. That compromise along with an earlier amendment addressed any lingering concerns and the bill passed committee on a unanimous voice vote. The compromise deleted the pilot program but substituted greater options for variance from state aid standards for Complete Streets projects.

From there, the bill successfully passed final committee-level action and eventually made its way to the House floor where there was an hour and 45 minute debate. The main arguments against were that it will take funding away from roads and “steal” from the gas tax revenues, that legislative action wasn’t needed, that it is just the start of steps to a statewide mandate for local governments, that it is social engineering, and that it will simply mean more government process. After the lengthy discussion, it passed 92-37 with all democrats and 10 republicans voting in favor.

The sailing was much smoother in the Senate. It passed through transportation committees without a hint of concern or a vote in opposition. At its next stop in the Finance committee, there was a good discussion about the specific impacts before it passed with one member voting no.

Students on the Capitol steps. Photo: Minnesota Environmental Partnership
Students on the Capitol steps. Photo: Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Soon after the House vote, our grassroots and communications team coordinated to have a positive and excited Complete Streets rally focused toward the republican Governor Tim Pawlenty. At the rally, Coalition members and local school children delivered stacks of postcards in support of Complete Streets—more than 5,000 in total— which had been collected by the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group and other grassroots Coalition organizations. The rally was attended by more than 100 supporters, including some students from an Eagan school active in Safe Routes to School, and a nearby St. Paul school where kids were celebrating walk-to-school week.

Governor Pawlenty had not taken a position on the bill at this point, so after the House vote, our Senate author elected to include Complete Streets in the larger transportation policy bill to help ease the process of its passage. There was little opposition in the Senate to including it in the larger bill. Through the conference committee process, both houses reached agreement to include Complete Streets in the 2010 transportation policy bill. The final vote on the larger transportation policy bill was 58-3 in the Senate and 109-25 in the House. Governor Pawlenty expressed no concerns with Complete Streets and signed the bill 3 days after it was submitted to him.

Lessons learned (or confirmed)

  • A very broad, diverse coalition helps, especially if it includes a combination of allies that don’t typically work together on policy
  • Get to work early, and consider running a smaller pre-cursor bill that doesn’t use the words Complete Streets but gets at similar ideas
  • Talk to as many stakeholders as possible before the legislation is introduced—engage the local government groups and professional organizations as much as possible
  • Safety is the most important message, while health, flexibility for local governments, and the environment also helped inspire support from some legislators
  • The public doesn’t know what Complete Streets means, but a safety message resonates and in readily grasped and supported
  • The MnDOT study bill was a very important first step as it set the stage for the agency to overcome many of the built-in misconceptions from some quarters, although advocacy on the study was an important part of that progress as well
  • Engage the DOT early, often, and from a variety of angles—try to make the business case (through Context Sensitive Solutions, etc.) and use respected messengers
  • Politics often trumps policy—make sure to get bi-partisan support early
    Complete Streets is important for all settings—it helps to have bill authors reflect that diversity
  • Complete Streets is about more than bicycling; it is very important to make the message about all modes, for travel both along and across roadways
  • Grassroots can be challenging on Complete Streets because most groups will come from a particular perspective (i.e. environment) and asking members to engage through a message outside of their usual “lens” can be difficult
  • The groundwork laid through the training and introduction to Complete Streets and active living concepts over recent years was a critical and efficient investment that led to broad support and success for both local as well as state policy adoption
Complete Streets