Completing Rural Highways: Funding Complete Streets

Even with a strong commitment to Complete Streets principles, many state agencies and their local partners lack dedicated and consistent funding streams to add the necessary elements to existing road projects. Rural infrastructure can be particularly difficult to fund, costing more per capita, so adding new elements is often seen by state and local agencies as a burden. Smart Growth America and the State Smart Transportation Initiative worked with practitioners to illustrate how their peers have found ways to overcome these obstacles.

From November 2022 to May 2023, Smart Growth America worked with the State Smart Transportation Initiative to host a series of four virtual workshops for staff at state departments of transportation (DOTs) to discuss challenges and strategies for implementing Complete Streets on state-owned rural roads. This work was completed in partnership with CDC’s Active People, Healthy Nation℠ Initiative. Learn more here.
Pedestrians use a marked crosswalk to cross two vehicle lanes separated by a median.
(WalkBike NC)

Challenges to funding projects

1. Funding for rural roads is already stretched thin.

Many agencies are already faced with a backlog of rural highway projects, where consistent funding is often a challenge. While rural roads are typically critical for moving goods and people, they cost more per capita than roads in densely populated areas and local governments often have limited resources to contribute. This includes funding for capital investments like sidewalks, but also funding to maintain those sidewalks once they are built, which often falls on the local agencies.

2. Complete Streets features increase project costs for rural areas.

Complete Street projects need not always be more expensive, especially on large urban roadways that can be right-sized to accommodate people walking and biking.1 In rural areas, however, these projects are more likely to require additional pavement, sidewalks where none exist, new pavement markings, and modern traffic control devices.

How agencies are funding projects

1. Think long term.

Complete Streets projects often come with a strong sense of urgency, especially when momentum has been built by investments from local officials, community members, and business leaders. But, like any major infrastructure project, they take time to plan, design, and pay for. By coordinating with local agencies in advance, state agencies can know where there is interest in Complete Streets projects for when funding becomes available and work to ensure there are strong plans in place. This helps state agencies be prepared when a road comes due for repaving or reconstruction, and if new funding sources become available. State and local agencies can also pursue available planning grants in the near-term to be eligible for additional funding sources—for example, collecting crash data to be eligible for the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP).

Long-term planning also helps agencies approach projects in phases—tackling different sections of a corridor in sequence, or separating different components of a project, like pavement and sidewalks. This has the potential added benefit of tapping into different funding sources. In the interim, inexpensive quick-build projects can help meet immediate needs, while helping to build support and address potential concerns.

2. Seize every funding opportunity.

When dealing with both internal and federal funding streams, it can be tempting to fit each road project into a pot of money. However, each funding stream is limited and comes with certain constraints—i.e., shoulders may be covered but not sidewalks. Combining different funds can take additional work to coordinate, but also can make Complete Streets projects much more viable. Routine funds for resurfacing, restoration, and rehabilitation (aka, 3Rs) are often a logical starting point for any road project. They can then be combined with federal grants, safety programs, active transportation funds, and other flexible funding sources to make Complete Streets a reality.

3. Partner with local agencies.

State agencies can work with local agencies to leverage additional funds for certain components of a Complete Streets project and help share the costs. For example, many local entities can apply for the federal Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), which is administered by state agencies through a competitive process. State DOTs can also support local agencies in applying to other federal programs like Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) and tribal grants.

Both Caltrans and the North Carolina DOT have begun coordinating closely with local agencies in advance of potential Complete Streets projects to identify funding opportunities and work toward securing the necessary funding for projects to advance.

A group of children crosses a large intersection partially blocked by a white pick up truck with the logo "Happy Camp"
Intersection in Happy Camp, before Complete Streets project (Sacramento Valley Section)

Finding funding in California

Caltrans districts each review their 10-year portfolios regularly to assess long-term Complete Streets needs and try matching available funding sources to projects. This includes their main State Highway Operation and Protection Program (SHOPP), TAP, Reconnecting Communities, and other state or federal discretionary funds. This process usually involves close coordination with local stakeholders and sometimes also requires projects to be completed in phases using different funding sources.

In one instance, Caltrans awarded roughly $10 million in TAP funds to the Karuk Tribe in Happy Camp for bike lanes, sidewalks, accessibility enhancements, and lighting along State Route 96. After years of public engagement and several failed funding attempts, Caltrans worked with the Karuk Tribe to find a way to work within established policies and systems to provide support. The funds were essentially turned back over to Caltrans for the project. It also required Caltrans to enter a joint power agreement with the tribe to avoid bureaucratic processes that may inadvertently pressure the tribe into waiving its sovereign immunity, as is often the case in state or federally-funded tribal development projects.

This example illustrates the importance of understanding unique cultural contexts, challenges, and processes when working with communities who have received or are seeking funding for a new project and developing effective relationships with local communities that share decision-making power to generate creative solutions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided support for this project under cooperative agreement OT18-1802 supporting the Active People, Healthy NationSM Initiative, a national initiative led by the CDC to help 27 million Americans become more physically active by 2027. Learn more: The findings and conclusions in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Complete Streets Transportation