Loophole in New NYSDOT Policy Undermines New York’s Complete Streets Law

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(Photo courtesy of www.smartgrowthamerica.org)

Written by: Nadine Lemmon, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, www.tstc.org

The New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) recently issued a draft plan of transportation projects it will be tackling from 2014-2017. This draft Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) will encompass more than $32 billion in federal, state and local funds, and is the best “blueprint” for what the State’s transportation priorities will be in the near future. Unfortunately for pedestrians and bicyclists, who jointly represent 27 percent of the total fatalities on New York’s roads, it doesn’t look like they are high on NYSDOT’s priority list.

The core of the problem may lie with NYSDOT’s new “Preservation First” policy.

In the fall of 2012, NYSDOT issued a STIP guide document to the 13 Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) across the state to help guide their decisions on what projects will get built, and what projects will not. The document outlined what the agency called a “fundamental shift” in the philosophy and principles behind how New York State “develops, programs and funds transportation infrastructure.” Called the “primary focus” of four guiding principles, this new “Preservation First” policy emphasizes fixing existing transportation infrastructure before building new or expanded infrastructure. While Tri-State supports fix-it-first policies like Preservation First as the most efficient use of limited resources, a loophole in the policy appears to be preserving not just 1950s-era infrastructure, but also a 1950s-era mentality. In other words, cars first, with pedestrians and bicyclists fighting for scraps.

It is widely recognized that one of the easiest and most efficient ways to incorporate more facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists is to add sidewalks and bike lanes to roads when they’re being repaired. But despite the fact that sustainability is one of the “forward four guiding principles” (and even mentions a “complete” transportation system), the policy considers only repairs to existing sidewalks “preservation projects,” but the addition of new sidewalks will be considered capital investments that go “beyond preservation.” According to the STIP guide document, “beyond preservation” projects must pass an additional review by NYSDOT’s central office in Albany.

Additionally, $39.7 million in Marchiselli funding—which is the primary state aid matching fund for local projects and an essential funding source for communities trying to build new sidewalks— will also be subject to the Preservation First policy. Applications for Marchiselli funding will now be reviewed on a “case by case” basis. If their projects don’t make the cut, municipalities will be responsible for a 20 percent match to their federal dollars, instead of a five percent match—a cost increase that would kill most local sidewalk projects.

Extra hurdles often mean projects are less likely to make it to the finish line. Planners throughout the various MPOs, who are already struggling to get more of these projects going with less federal support, worry that a Preservation First approach will short-change pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure.  And it’s not the only state policy short-changing vulnerable road users. The vast majority of projects funded through Governor Cuomo’s NY Works program, which is focused on repaving roads and re-building bridges, also do not include new facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The intent of New York State’s Complete Streets law was to make consideration of pedestrian and bicycling facilities a routine part of rebuilding our crumbling transportation system. The intent of NYSDOT’s “Preservation First” policy is to rebuild what we have, the way we have it now. The two policies simply do not match, and Governor Cuomo should retroactively make sure that they do.

 

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