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NY Counties Oppose Complete Streets Bill Without Understanding It

3:04 PM EST on February 8, 2011

Last year's legislative session in Albany included a number of victories for supporters of smart growth and safer streets, including the passage of the Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy Act, Hayley and Diego's Law, and bus lane camera enforcement for New York City. But the complete streets bill, which was passed by the State Senate and made it through the Assembly's transportation committee, didn't cross the finish line before the end of the session.

The bill has already been reintroduced by State Senator Martin Dilan in the current session, but it's meeting some new opposition. Yesterday, the transportation committee of the New York State Association of Counties passed a resolution [PDF] urging the legislature to oppose the complete streets bill. The full association votes tomorrow.

The need for streets that are designed to protect all users is clear. In the five largest upstate counties, a pedestrian is killed by a car every ten days, according to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and AARP. On Long Island, a pedestrian is killed once a week and in New York City, once every two and a half days. A disproportionate number of the victims are senior citizens.

The NYSAC resolution doesn't directly deny the need for safer streets. But the committee argued that complete streets shouldn't be a priority in a time of strained budgets and that the "diversion of effort and funding as mandated by complete streets proposals would further the deterioration of our infrastructure." The resolution recommends that elected officials oppose the complete streets legislation.

The 62 counties represented by NYSAC represent a political force legislators are sure to notice. But as a letter to the transportation committee from Tri-State and AARP shows, this resolution doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. Most of its objections stem from misreadings of the relatively simple complete streets bill.

For example, the NYSAC resolution calls for limiting the complete streets bill to dense areas and large projects, but those limits are already in the bill. As written, S 1332 only covers projects "that are eligible for both federal and state funding and are subject to Department of Transportation oversight," a category that only covers major projects. Resurfacing and maintenance are also exempt.

Moreover, if it is determined that "the cost would be disproportionate to the need as determined by factors including, but not limited to, the following: land use context; current and project traffic volumes including non-motorized traffic; and population density," a project would be exempt.

The bill's authors have already responded to NYSAC's critiques. NYSAC just seems not to have noticed.

The counties also misunderstand what "complete streets" entail. Their resolution warns that it might sometimes be physically impossible to "provide such enhancements as widening the size of the roadway to accommodate pedestrians and bikers on both sides."

Of course, you don't make a complete street by taking an existing road and slapping on two sidewalks and two bike lanes. You might find the space for a sidewalk by narrowing travel lanes to calm traffic. And as the National Complete Streets Coalition's slideshow highlights, there's no one kind of complete street. This residential street, for example, only has one sidewalk and asks cyclists to share the slow-moving, low-traffic street with motorists.

Some local governments are already passing their own complete streets policies, understanding that they can save lives, promote sustainable and active transportation, and lighten the loads that the state's roads must bear. It's too bad that rather than join them, the state Association of Counties is fighting against safety.

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