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Complete Streets: Unfunded Mandate or Sound Economic Principle?

A Thursday Crank

Complete Streets: Unfunded Mandate or Sound Economic Principle?

Ever since Complete Streets became part of state DOT policies (MI CS) there has been pushback. The primary push back involves funding. Here in Traverse City, I’ve heard from local officials and city staff, as well as from representatives from the regional MDOT office that the state legislation passed last year is an “unfunded mandate.” Unfunded mandates are regulations enacted on an organization like a road agency, local government, or private entity for which no funding mechanism is put in place. This is not the case with Michigan’s Complete Streets policy.

For starters, there is no mandate; cities and road agencies are under no threat of punishment from the state if they ignore Public Act 134 (PDF) and Public Act 135 (PDF). Where required, if they can’t prove that they considered all road users adequately, they may, however, need to uncomfortably answer to their higher-ups; state lawmakers (YouTube), department heads (MI CS), or ultimately, the citizens of the communities where they are re-building/building roadways.

Previous rebukes to incomplete streets already added extra costs to road projects even without the policy movement. I’ve wondered often how much money Traverse City wasted in staff time during the 8th St. kerfuffle. Much of it avoidable with a better planning and communication process. If anything, complete streets are performance based policies where money flows first to agencies enthusiastically building complete streets. If you plan it, it will be funded.

Secondly, although times are tough, road agencies continue to spend money on transportation amenities. What’s fundamental to implementing complete streets isn’t complicated engineering or miles of extra pavement, at the base level we can improve access for everyone with improved planning, communication and a realization that “people will be there.” It is a process of inclusive design principles that consider all legal users of the public right-of-way. In the context of the Traverse City region, where there are no express-ways, that covers the complete network of our roads, streets, trails, sidewalks, bus stops…

The Real Mandate

I don’t see Complete Streets as a new mandate. It is a principle that needed to have been part of the process for the last 40 years and wasn’t. Is it difficult for a system that was allowed to practically ignore people moving in any other fashion than an automobile to change its approach and perspective? Yes. Is it impossible? No. Transportation is already funded to the tune of tens of billions a year nationally (over $40 b through the federal highway administration alone) and it has disportionately been directed towards moving a single mode of transportation and thus limiting our choices at an increasingly unsustainable rate.

In the end, planning and implementing for all is ultimately sound economic policy. In communities where the complete right-of-way is designed for all users real estate  and property values rise (CEO for Cities), the roughly 30% of people who don’t have driver’s licences have improved access to jobs and shopping (CS), costly liabilities decrease (GG Wash) and social costs are lowered. This last investment was recently articulated nicely on Hingeline. The post addresses the real mandate, coming from the public-the need for transportation networks that provide safe, comfortable and equitable options:

When I think of Complete Streets I think of streets that are safe for everyone. And by making streets safer we lower what economists term externalities or “social costs”.

A street designed as complete will be safer for everyone resulting in a net economic gain to society.

In other words, what is a life worth? Not just to that person’s family and friends but to the economy as a whole? What are the economic benefits if lawsuits are kept out of the courts, insurance isn’t used, employees don’t miss work, first responders are available for other emergencies, and on and on?”

What are complete streets? Rory Neuner, who wears many hats in Lansing and the State of Michigan, including sitting on the state’s Complete Streets Advisory Council  (MDOT) recently spoke with Let’s Save Michigan concerning the current policy needs at the state level.

Bonus: if you live in Lansing, Neuner is also running for city council.

  1. August 18, 2011 at 10:30 am


    This is an outstanding piece of blogging: pertinent subject matter discussed enthusiastically, exemplary use of hyperlinking to other good pieces, and I hereby promise to slip the word “kerfuffle” into an otherwise serious conversation, whilst attempting to keep a straight face, within the next seven days.

  2. August 18, 2011 at 11:12 am

    I agree, good blogging, and sound analysis of the unfunded mandate. The places that realize what these investments mean are the places that are positioned to succeed in the coming years. It makes good economic sense and are investments in the kind of city you want to be.

  3. August 19, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Great post, Gary. I will note that some us of advocates down here in Lansing are working on a resource on the various ways to fund complete streets. The good news is that there are TONS of ways to pay for it. It simply requires our local planners, engineers and officials to get creative and be open-minded about how to use funds. For example, here in Lansing we’ll break ground on an exceptionally exciting road diet / compete streets project that uses a combination of STP funds, local major road dollars, County Health Department grant funds, and federal competitive dollars to put it together.

  4. Marya
    August 19, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    The City needs to keep in mind one raw fact:
    Bicycles are cheaper than cars. Every place we and our children can bike means one less car on the road.

  5. Andrew Mutch
    August 19, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Act 51 requires that local and county road departments spend at least 1% of their Act 51 dollars on non-motorized improvements. While it’s not much money if communities only spend the minimum, no agency can claim that the mandate is unfunded as they are getting money from the state to put in place improvements for walkers, bikers, etc.

  6. August 25, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    This was emailed out by James Bruckbauer from the Michigan State Transportation Commission Meeting at the Hagerty Center in Traverse City this morning. Thanks for including us James; good work J. Clark. Thank you both for representing:

    Our favorite complete streets advocate made a public comment at the state transportation commission meeting this morning. She thanked them and the agency for making it a higher priority over the last year, and encouraged them to continue to make it a higher priority in the coming year. “Despite the economic times, ALL people still need to move around.”

    Commissioner Linda Miller Atkinson from the UP (who is also on the CS Advisory Council) responded by basically asking: how will “these projects get funding?”

    Julie responded that there are two or three examples of CS projects up here that use both public and private investment. She replied that it’s up to all the stakeholders, including MDOT, to come up with creative ways to fund these projects.

    I think Julie did a great job and if you see her in near future, you may want to thank her.

    Gary, feel free to share this email as a comment under your “unfunded mandate” blog post.

  1. April 2, 2012 at 5:18 pm

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