Completing Our Streets: A smart approach to the cost of Complete Streets

Richfield, MN
In Richfield, Minnesota, a utility project led to the reconfiguration of 76th Street with sidewalks, a side path, and fewer lanes, saving $2 million from original projections. Residents to the east now want to extend the features further along the street. Image via the City of Richfield.

This post is the third in a twice-monthly series of excerpts from Completing Our Streets: The Transition to Safe and Inclusive Transportation Networks, the new book from Island Press by Barbara McCann, founder of the National Complete Streets Coalition. The book discusses the keys to the movement’s success, and how places and practitioners in the United States are tackling the challenges of putting a new transportation paradigm into daily practice.

Today’s excerpt addresses a common concern: costs. The National Complete Streets Coalition recently published a toolkit to help local supporters respond to cost concerns, with examples from across the country. The report is accompanied by PowerPoint slides that can be downloaded and selectively used in community meetings.

All National Complete Streets Coalition Platinum Partners and those who upgrade to the next Partnership level will receive a signed copy of Completing Our Streets. Become a Coalition Partner today!

From Chapter 7: Answering a Loaded Question: How much do Complete Streets cost?

Where to Start
Unfortunately, the first impulse of many Complete Streets advocates is to give an answer to the costs question that does not provide what most transportation professionals are looking for. The professionals see trouble: they are assuming this will cost a lot, they know they have a limited budget, and they are wondering if this is worth it. The advocates zero in on the last point, because of course this is a question of values. But they do so by pointing to the values that they think are most important: they tell practitioners that, eventually, Complete Streets will reduce spending on health care costs, or will add economic value to neighborhoods, or will make the community more sustainable or livable.

These arguments can be compelling to other advocates and to some elected officials and are often essential during the policy-adoption process. The trouble is, when it comes to implementation, these benefits do nothing to help a public works administrator figure out how to balance his or her transportation budget. All of these broader societal savings won’t show up on that bottom line, so they are not likely to be convincing. Such arguments still avoid the practical question of how to pay for the change, and they don’t address the (incorrect) assumption that this will be expensive. And depending on just how skeptical the planners or engineers are, discussing sustainability may or may not win converts. This is why this “lasting value” answer should be the last one to turn to when discussing Complete Streets with someone concerned about the practical side of paying for them.

We Have an Urgent Safety Problem
A better starting point to the cost question is the answer that carried the day in Cary, Illinois: that existing users of the street need to be safe. Remember the poll of practitioners in Oklahoma and Texas who were doubtful of the value of Complete Streets? Their responses assumed that non-motorized transportation was optional and that no one did or would want to use the street without a car. With that mind-set, the cost of providing these “amenities” is seen as an option—a luxury that strapped transportation departments can ill afford. As discussed in chapter 3, safety is already the best way to motivate practitioners. Changing the framing of the cost question to an immediate safety issue changes the entire equation. How can a transportation department claim that it can’t afford to build safer streets, when safety is its core mission?

So, the first fact to establish in making this argument is that people are already using the streets via foot, bicycle, and public transportation. We know that in the one hundred largest cities in the United States, 7.5 million households don’t have access to a car. “Goat trails” offer hard visual evidence that people are walking in these “unwalkable” places, as do photographs of people walking, bicycling, or waiting for a bus in those same places. Statistics about travel patterns help—the more local, the better. In New Orleans, Complete Streets supporters pointed to census data showing that 10.3 percent of residents do not have access to a car and that 8.4 percent walk, bike, or take transit to work in the metro New Orleans area. This can be an effective point to make to transportation professionals who view safe travel as fundamental to their jobs and to elected officials who feel a sense of responsibility for ensuring that taxpayer investments provide for their constituents’ needs.

The need to protect existing users is a helpful point to make when someone says transportation funds should be reserved for building facilities to serve cars because the money comes from gas taxes paid by drivers. Those who use the roads without buying gasoline are still helping to pay for them through income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, bonds, and fees. A report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group shows that, contrary to popular belief, roads do not pay for themselves: today, only half the cost of road construction and maintenance is covered by funds from gasoline taxes. Since World War II, road construction costs have outpaced funds raised through the gas tax and other road-user fees by $600 billion—money that came out of general government funds.

Order your copy of Completing Our Streets to read more from Chapter 7, including:

  • Complete Streets Can Unlock New Financial Resources
  • Investing in Complete Streets Will Add Lasting Value

Related resources from the National Complete Streets Coalition:

Complete Streets