WASHINGTON >> The federal government has a new warning to states seeking billions of dollars from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law to widen roads: protect the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists or risk losing the money.
In a report submitted to Congress and made public Wednesday, the Department of Transportation says it will aim to prioritize the safety and health of the all the users of today’s modern roadway, from riders of public transit and electric scooters to Uber rideshare pickups and people delivering goods. Projects such as bike paths and traffic roundabouts, enhanced sidewalks, pedestrian pathways to bus stops and transit lanes will be favored in the distribution of the money.
The department led by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wants to change a longtime focus by the states that directed federal money toward adding car lanes to relieve congestion and increase speed — often at the cost of mostly nonwhite communities living next to the busy roadways.
“Safety is consistently DOT’s top priority,” according to the report, which was written in response to a request by the House a year ago to address record spikes in U.S. roadway deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report said the Federal Highway Administration’s adoption of the “Complete Streets” strategy, which is already followed by hundreds of communities, will “have a positive impact on the safety of all roadway users — reversing the trend of increasing fatal and serious injuries and creating a healthier, greener, and more equitable surface transportation system.”
Approximately one-third of U.S. traffic fatalities are people who are outside of vehicles. New data released Wednesday show 38,824 lives were lost in traffic crashes overall in 2020, with especially high levels for motorcyclists and bicyclists.
“A Complete Street is safe, and feels safe, for everyone using the street,” said Stephanie Pollack, the deputy head of the highway administration. “We can’t keep people safe on our roads if we don’t have safer roads and roads that slow down drivers to safe speeds.”
The shift promises a boost to cities from Atlanta and Austin, Texas, to Nashville, Tennessee, that have strained to raise money to build out green-friendly transit options, reduce fatalities by slowing traffic and stitch together communities racially divided by highways after states balked in providing funds for that purpose.
In 2020, the latest data available, U.S. traffic fatalities for Black people jumped 23% compared with 7% overall. Lower-income Black residents are more likely to live next to pedestrian crash hotspots, according to the report, and during the pandemic were disproportionately represented among essential workers who continued to travel to work, often on public transit.
Still, the effort could add to tensions with Republican-led states and governors who bristle at the notion of ceding power to pick their road projects, with some casting the bipartisan law as a vehicle for Biden’s liberal causes. Others worry that rural areas could lose in the process.
“Americans expect new roads and real infrastructure needs to be addressed — not a vehicle for the administration’s woke agenda,” said Missouri Rep. Sam Graves, the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
In a letter to governors last month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., two of the 19 Republicans who voted in the 50-50 Senate to approve the infrastructure bill, criticized a December memo by the highway administration that urged states to use new funding to maintain and improve highways before adding lanes. McConnell and Capito said states should continue spending formula funding as they see fit to meet local needs.
At a congressional hearing Wednesday, Buttigieg said he would consider safety, climate and other factors in the award of billions in competitive grants.
“It certainly reflects our priorities,” he said. “When it comes to discretionary grants … safety, state of good repair, economic strength, resilience — these are national priorities, and administration priorities, and things that will certainly guide me within the parameters of the law in our decisions.”
With regard to formula funds, Buttigieg said his department will seek to work closely with states to help them understand things “they may not even have known” in regards to available money for safety. He cited the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program, which provides flexible funding for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and transit capital projects, including intercity bus terminals.
FHWA said Wednesday it would issue updated guidance on use of that money in the coming weeks.
While the report to Congress does not have the force of law, the department points to potential legal authority under federal statutes to refocus money for up to 70% of the nation’s highways and does not rule out stronger efforts to push states into compliance. The department said Wednesday that many cities’ proposed “cap and stitch” plans to build green spaces atop underground highways and connect divided communities would likely be eligible for different pots of federal money. Buttigieg has cited a need to rectify a history of racist design in roadways.
Pollack, a hands-on manager who formerly led Massachusetts’ transportation agency under a Republican governor, has actively pushed federal roadway design standards. Last year, the FHWA temporarily halted Texas’ proposed expansion of I-45 in Houston over civil rights concerns, a rare assertion of federal power to investigate potential racial impacts. The agency has since lifted portions of that hold as it negotiates a resolution with the state that seeks to limit economic and environmental harm to neighboring lower-income, Black and Latino communities.