You’ve just been sworn into your first elected office. You’re committed to improving your city’s transportation network, to make it safer and better balanced between cars, human power, and public transportation. You’re excited to find that there are substantial state and federal transportation funding sources available that your city or county can apply for.
This article was written by Ben Abramson and originally published by Strong Towns.
Not so fast. “Not all free money is free,” warns Michele Martinez, who has held elected office in California, served on state transportation commissions, and as a Strong Towns board member. And when it comes to applying for transportation grants, the strings attached may surprise you.
Martinez should know. As a new city council member in Santa Ana, California, she immediately encountered a state highway agency that prioritized arterial highways throughout Orange County over local, multimodal transportation.
Examples of requirements attached to transportation funding may include reconfiguration of surface roads approaching or adjacent to highways, higher speed limits through city streets, or signal timing that prioritizes car movement. Unfortunately, such funding sources may also help municipalities with vital road repairs and reconditioning.
That dynamic forces city leaders across the U.S. to confront some frightening compromises. Martinez summarizes the dilemma starkly: “To get this free money, we have to literally potentially kill people” by perpetuating the same development patterns that created the danger, in the first place.
Confronting and changing these rules is a multi-tiered challenge, and elected officials and citizen advocates need to take a proactive, vocal approach, advises Martinez.
She started by commissioning a crash map of Santa Ana, which showed an unacceptable number of deaths and serious injuries on city streets. Seeing the map was “a very sobering moment, not just for the public works director, but for the city manager and all the council and community when they saw all those red dots. And that’s when we recognized something has to change, we have to change our infrastructure, or we’re going to continue to see people die on our streets.”
That led to another lesson. Your transportation staff has to be advocating the same priorities and values as elected officials are seeking. In Santa Ana’s case, that meant replacing the public works director with someone more committed to pedestrian and bike safety.
Santa Ana leaders then sought to redefine their local transportation goals to emphasize more types of users, and produced a bike and pedestrian master plan. This allowed it to pursue different sources of funding, from agencies seeking safer streets and more equitable transportation outcomes.
At the same time, it’s important to try to influence and change the priorities of the commissions doling out traditional transportation funding. Martinez said better communication with transportation commissioners and metropolitan planning organizations helped Santa Ana hone its land use and find funding streams better aligned with its priorities.
Darnell Grisby, a senior fellow at California’s Beneficial State, says this should be an “all-hands-on-deck” effort. He says it’s important to grow a coalition with “NGOs, nonprofits, other stakeholders … to engage with state or federal sources to influence changes in policy.”
One tactic he says is often resonant is to advocate for accountability in any major transportation project. “The degree to which we can say there will be audits or the public will be engaged in terms of how the money’s been spent to ensure accountability and efficiency, likely will help support for increased spending,” says Grisby.
Conversely, point out that adding an additional highway lane creates “a never-ending process that can cost a lot of money.”
Grisby sees signs of hope in California, where state agencies are no longer emphasizing increased traffic capacity in funding decisions. In Rochester, New York, officials seeking to decommission a highway segment within city limits made a successful argument on economic terms, by citing reduced maintenance costs and increased land values by removing highway lanes.
Grisby adds some important advice for all transportation advocates, be they electeds or citizens. “I think sometimes as policy wonks, we may forget about politics. And part of politics is to showcase to stakeholders that a shift in emphasis is not going to cause [a backlash] … and to show that there are benefits to change.”