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Collaboration, Policy Needed for Complete Streets

October 10, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Last week in this space we looked at the Minnesota Department of Transportation's somewhat halting adoption of a legally mandated "Complete Streets" philosophy that gives due consideration to all modes of travel when planning state highway projects.

The department, among Minnesota's largest state agencies, is hampered, on one hand, by a bureaucratic culture left over from its former near-exclusive focus on automotive mobility and, on the other, by state constitutional constraints on spending its main revenue sources. But state law along with broadening public attitudes about the purposes of transportation corridors are pushing MnDOT inexorably into a multimodal 21st century.

It's actually been many years since the former state Department of Highways was involved in roads and bridges alone. MnDOT has divisions governing and funding aviation, railroads, waterways and Greater Minnesota transit as well as a bicycle and pedestrian section within the Office of Transit. It recently published a new statewide bicycle map and it enforces state standards on pedestrian facilities that are part of state-aid city and county road projects.

Multimodal controversy, however, seems to center on the 29,000 lane-miles of Interstate, U.S. and state highways under direct MnDOT control. These routes are generally the most heavily trafficked by motor vehicles, but they range from multilane, limited access freeways to city thoroughfares also where bicyclists and pedestrians enjoy legal -- if not always safe -- access.

"Even though MnDOT may now be implementing a Complete Streets policy, there still should be a champion at the project level to make sure bike-ped facilities are included," said Erik Rudeen of the department's government affairs office. At the same time, he acknowledged that MnDOT's Complete Streets policy to guide highway planners remains a work in progress 3½ years after state legislation requiring it was enacted. It should "be finalized within a month or so," he said this week.

Bike-ped advocates say a formal policy is needed to make MnDOT's multimodal responsibilities transparent to both its own project managers and the public. And they complain that some managers try to limit planning input from citizens by suggesting that they funnel their concerns to MnDOT through local government authorities.

But MnDOT itself recently completed a pilot project that brought a broad range of stakeholders together to draft a Complete Streets plan for Grand Rapids, Minn. Participants included city, county, state, federal, school, business, tourism, human services, trails and bicycling leaders.

According to a report commissioned by the sponsoring federal Transportation Research Board, "the very nature of Complete Streets planning requires the active participation of a broad and disparate variety of partners and stakeholders," getting "the right people at the table, at the right time, with the right information to lead to decisions that stick."

MnDOT also claims a nation-leading outreach process in its runup to this week's announcement of a $13 million federal alternative transportation grant program to finance pedestrian and bicycle facilities, among other projects. The money will be awarded on a competitive basis next April to local communities and regional agencies in Greater Minnesota. A parallel program for the Twin Cities will be launched by the Metropolitan Council later in the fall.

Because the financing does not come from state fuel and vehicle taxes dedicated to highway purposes -- it's 80 percent federal, 20 percent local -- projects can be located outside trunk highway right-of-way, said MnDOT program manager Chris Berrens. "We're also the only state that did extensive public outreach for this," he added, including 14 sessions around Minnesota where more than 360 people participated.

This kind of collaboration, buttressed by a permanent policy that makes bureaucrats accountable to clear standards, is clearly needed to work through inherent conflicts between traditional autocentric highway purposes and the nonmotorized uses that have been legally recognized, if not always fully respected, for decades. Even so, it's unlikely that even the best process can completely iron out every dispute.

For example, on the Hwy. 61 project in White Bear Lake cited last week, Mike Brooks of the local bike-walk task force said the MnDOT manager rebuffed the group's request to reduce the highway's speed limit through a busy commercial and residential area from 40 m.p.h. to 30.

That would take a formal request from the city, Brooks said he was told, followed by a "speed study" that could result in an even higher speed limit for the road.

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  • Helen Duritsa says:

    October 12, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    Conrad: Please state what you mean by “state constitutional constraints on spending its main revenue sources.”

    By state law, constitutionally dedicated funding for highways can be used for biking and walking.
    This has been misunderstood by many and continues to be promoted inaccurately.
    There are state statutes that clearly indicate that bicycle transportation is an intended purpose for state highway funding use.
    Please see statute 160.262, 160.265 and state highway rules 8810.6000 to 8810.7000. There are more laws in place to support this as well.
    Please help distribute accurate information so that we can truly implement Complete Streets and not be roadblocked by this ongoing misinformation.

    • Conrad deFiebre says:

      October 14, 2013 at 1:38 pm

      What I mean is that fuel and vehicle taxes cannot be spent on infrastructure outside of state highway and state aid right-of-way. That stricture does not apply to federal funds in the program described in my post. But our Department of Transportation (not Department of Highways) still cannot apply its main revenue sources anywhere but to certain designated roadways.