Cities Succeed Where Feds Have Fallen Short on Transportation

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Cities across the country are taking a holistic, long-term approach to developing their transportation systems.


“One big pothole.” This is how former Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has frequently described the state of America’s transportation infrastructure. If you’ve been out at all on the highways, railways or other transit systems that comprise our nation’s transportation network—this analogy likely resonates with you. And for good reason.

The United States has not made a significant strategic investment in the national transportation network since finishing the Interstate Highway System – that’s more than a half century without any vision or plan on a national scale to update critical freight or passenger transportation systems in our country.

In the wake of the economic downturn, there is no doubt that transportation projects have only continued to be neglected and left in dire need of attention. The pending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund has perpetuated this problem, putting more of the onus on state and local policy makers to find the cash for these projects in already challenging times.

Road improvements have been delayed, bridges in need of maintenance have been ignored and transit systems have been forced to cut service and routes. Subsequently people have experienced the adverse consequences. Lest we forget that, at its root, transportation comes down to one basic notion: people.

Though seemingly harsh, the underlying message in LaHood’s analogy is that transportation is important to our everyday lives. It should be a priority. It is the means by which we move goods, reach jobs, connect with family and explore nature. It drives our national and global economies and simultaneously reinforces social equity ideals through a promise to move people and goods to their destinations via our highways, railways, waterways and public-transit systems.

Unfortunately, because transportation has not received the attention it deserves, our lack of investment is catching up to us.

Cities Step Up

A consistent theme across our State of the Cities blog series this year has been cities taking the lead on critical issues neglected at the federal level. Transportation is no exception. City leaders are stepping up to the plate and placing this issue among their top priorities.

Transpo-SOTC-StatsOur analysis of State of the City addresses shows that three-quarters (75%) of the leaders sampled mentioned transportation, and nearly one-third covered the topic in depth.

Local leaders are addressing the laundry list of maintenance and expansion projects that have the most direct impacts on individual users. Nearly one quarter of the speeches in our sample (24 out of 100) addressed highway and road improvement projects, and 22 speeches announced other types of related infrastructure improvements, such as sidewalk repairs and gutter replacements.

Projects like these do not generate a lot of excitement or public support, but their importance cannot be underestimated. All it takes is one falter, one accident, one disaster to remind us of how difficult life is without well-managed, well-maintained, functional transportation infrastructure.

Cities are also focusing on enhancing their streets and arterials to accommodate all modes of transportation, as one fifth of the speeches sampled referenced Complete Streets initiatives. They are once again expanding and building new systems. The streetcar has seen a revolution in the last decade, with cities recognizing this mode’s potential to both improve mobility for residents and also serve as an economic development driver. Streetcar systems are being planned and constructed in Riverside, Calif., Miami, Fla., and Seattle, Wash.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has emerged onto the scene as an affordable and functional mobility option. Chula Vista, Calif. will see a new BRT system in 2015, which will link residents in the eastern part of the city with downtown San Diego and Otay Mesa. Grand Rapids, Mich. transit authority, The Rapid, has effectively rallied the region around the Interurban Transit Partnership BRT project – known locally as the Silver Line. Mayor Jack Poll in Wyoming, Mich., took pride in announcing this regional engagement, and ongoing construction of a segment that will connect the southern portion of Wyoming with jobs, amenities and entertainment in downtown Grand Rapids.

Taking a Long-term Approach

In addition to resuming investments on individual transportation projects, a number of cities are taking a holistic, long-term approach to developing their transportation systems.

In Providence, R.I., leaders are embarking on a major road improvement project (which has created a notable number of jobs), while simultaneously developing a new Bicycling Master Plan to improve accommodations for both bicyclists and pedestrians. There is also work underway to update the city’s zoning ordinances, so as to better support future public transit and smart growth goals.

Fayetteville, Ark. used a road resurfacing project as an opportunity to install new drainage infrastructure, retaining walls, curbs and gutters and 11,000 feet of sidewalk. This was part of their ongoing attempt to facilitate walkability in the city. Residents saw the replacement of one bridge and the renovation of another, along with the addition of over 5 miles of new trails. The city also installed 41 new bike racks and an electric vehicle charging station as part of its Clean Energy District.

The city of Helena, Mont. recently finalized a five year transportation plan, and is now working toward a regional 10 year plan with other state and local stakeholders.

One of the fastest growing communities in the nation, Raleigh, N.C., has also committed to investing in a multi-modal transportation system. The city aims not only to mitigate traffic congestion, but to provide its growing resident base with “equal access to food, healthcare, jobs, childcare, all of those things that are needed for healthy communities.” Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane acknowledged that a multi-modal transportation system offers something less quantifiable, that most residents want: options beyond a car-dependent lifestyle. Raleigh has committed to providing those options.

Transportation Investment Matters

In taking this more inclusive, big picture approach, these cities have acknowledged that investment in a coordinated, multi-modal transportation system matters, and also that it is impossible to deny the strong link between mobility and equity. Transportation matters, simply put, because it impacts people. Kirk Caldwell, mayor of Honolulu, Hawaii drove this point home, when he declared that “Public transportation is about social equity. It is the great equalizer for the people of our community, helping them get to their jobs, their shopping, and their medical appointments. It means giving people a way to get around town that is safe, affordable, and efficient.”

His statement speaks volumes about the importance of investing in a transportation network that serves everyone, and reminds us of how significantly transportation infrastructure impacts individuals on a daily basis. As city leaders invest more significantly in our transportation systems,  that idea — that transportation is about people and service — will continue to undergird future decisions.

ND headshotAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.