Congressional hearing on Safe Streets Act highlights policy flexibility and safety

“My home district of Sacramento continues to bear witness to too many pedestrian accidents,” said Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-CA) last week. “The needless and avoidable accidents are vivid reminders of why we need Complete Streets policies.”

Congresswoman Matsui made these comments at a briefing on Capitol Hill on Thursday hosted by the National Complete Streets Coalition. Matsui was there to introduce the Safe Streets Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Congressman David Joyce (R-OH). As Congresswoman Matsui explained to the crowd, “It is far past time for the federal government to step and show it too is committed to improving the safety of our communities.”

Congresswoman Matsui introduced a panel of experts who spoke about Complete Streets. Danny Pleasant, Transportation Director, City of Charlotte, NC, highlighted the progress of Complete Streets policies in the City of Charlotte. Angela Vance, Associate State Director for Advocacy, AARP West Virginia, explained similar benefits Complete Streets strategies have brought to that state. Both pointed out the growing need for a federal policy to ensure consistency and flexibility to road-building.

“There’s a lot of flexibility in guidelines [for transportation projects] that largely goes unused,” said Geoff Anderson, President and CEO of Smart Growth America. “The Safe Streets Act would help the federal government ensure effective practice becomes guidelines.” Camille Mittelholtz, Environmental Policies Team Leader in the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) Office of Transportation Policy Development, added that federal legislation could allow USDOT to freshen and update its guidelines to promote Complete Streets standards.

Decisionmakers in Charlotte, which Pleasant characterized as a sprawling Sunbelt city, realize the city’s competitive edge relies on its ability to integrate lifestyle choices with the city’s transportation system, which involves creating a broad range of transportation choices. According to local polls, Charlotte’s residents continue to support the city’s Complete Streets work; overwhelmingly, 82 percent of residents believe that streets should be designed for all users. Charlotte City Council invested $400 million to create a “great” street network.

“When you look at the incremental cost of Complete Streets design elements compared to the variance that’s already in the marketplace of road-building, it gets absorbed,” Pleasant explained. He also encouraged decisionmakers to consider the value-added benefits of using a Complete Streets approach, including higher property values, lower property taxes and improved safety for all road users.

Vance discussed West Virginia’s recent experience of developing a state-level Complete Streets policy. It’s a particularly critical issue for older adults who want to remain independent and mobile, a group which makes up 16 percent of the state’s population. Creating safer communities and maintaining mobility for older adults extends across West Virginia, where half of non-drivers do not leave the house daily—even though more than half of West Virginians aged 50 or older said they would take walk, bike or take public transit more if those forms of transportation were safer.

Vance credited the success of West Virginia’s Complete Streets legislation with its strong coalition of diverse supporters, including the state’s Department of Transportation; Department of Health and Human Resources; AARP; and other diverse coalitions representing health, tourism and economic development organizations. To Vance, West Virginia’s state policy “empowers communities to work with transportation planners…to meet their individual needs.”

The common thread throughout the briefing focused on the ability of Complete Streets, when planned, designed, operated and maintained with all users in mind, to transform communities and the lives of the people who reside in them. As Vance put it, “[Complete Streets is] about going to the grocery store, going to church, going to medical appointments, staying connected.”

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