In 2009, Connecticut passed one of the strongest Complete Streets laws in the country, but a law is only as effective as the agencies who implement it. This summer, Connecticut DOT released a webpage and report outlining the progress it has made to change the way it designs streets. It’s a welcome show of transparency and shows that the department has made real changes toward making the complete streets approach part of its daily business. At the same time, many important reforms — like a badly needed rewrite of the department’s road design guidelines — still remain to be addressed.
According to the report, ConnDOT has been systematically widening shoulders along two-lane state roads, narrowing car lanes from 12 feet to 11 feet to provide the extra space. Of the 180 miles of two-lane highway that were resurfaced in 2012, 162 miles were redone with wider shoulders.
The department has been using a “bike and pedestrian form” at an early stage in the project design process to ensure that designers consider the need for pedestrian and cycling improvements. And since 2012, ConnDOT has sponsored or sent staff to at least four complete streets training workshops. Last year the department also established an internal Complete Streets Committee to recommend changes to agency policies.
One of the most needed reforms is a rewrite of the state’s Highway Design Manual. The manual is the standard reference book for road designers in the state and does not reflect a complete streets approach. Encouragingly, the ConnDOT report says that ”eventually, future initiatives will include the development of a Complete Streets Manual that integrates with the Department’s Highway Design Manual.” However, there is no timeline for this eventual “future initiative.”
In the meantime, the report notes that “there is no federal design standards for bicycle facilities” but suggests use of AASHTO’s 2012 bicycle standards. It omits the more innovative National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Bikeway Design Guide, which was endorsed by the Federal Highway Administration in August of this year and fills in many of the gaps of the AASHTO manual, which hasn’t incorporated up-to-date research.
The report also cites specific projects that incorporate a complete streets approach, such as the planned road diet of Route 44 in East Hartford, the addition of a walkway to the Putnam Bridge, and a proposal to add sidewalks to parts of Route 1 in Stratford. It also highlights several trails initiatives such as an analysis of trail gaps and signage for the East Coast Greenway.
Many of these are unprecedented in Connecticut and show a welcome flexibility at the department. What’s not listed in the report are projects to calm traffic in downtowns, possibly an indication of unbalanced priorities on ConnDOT’s part. The report notes that complete streets provide “some philosophical conflicts” when it comes to state roads, since these “have a long established primary purpose of mobility” for longer-distance trips. State roads have historically been built to accommodate high volume, fast traffic, which is fundamentally opposed to the good walking and biking environments that downtowns and transit-oriented development need to succeed.
The report identifies two near-term next steps: Seeking $50 million over five years to fill gaps in the trail network, and adding more bike racks and storage on transit and at transit stations. Beyond that, it says only that the department will “implement policies and funding to support multi-modal trips.” More momentum is needed so that ConnDOT can quickly address issues like road design guidance and downtown traffic calming.