Ask R. Moses: How does a street get built?

Today's Question 

I care about the safety and design of streets in my community, but it seems like they always get planned behind closed doors and by the time the public hears about a new street or road project, it’s too late to have any input. How does the process for building a street actually work? Where does it start and end and when am I, as a citizen, able to participate in the decision-making?
— Stuck on Streets

R Moses' Answer:

That’s a great question.  The process for building a new street, widening a road, or any other related decision can be very different depending on the community and the entities controlling the road. For instance, a major road controlled by your state’s Department of Transportation will have a different process than a neighborhood street. That said, for a local project, here’s a basic breakdown of how it typically works.

Source: Eric Fischer

Source: Eric Fischer

1. A New Street is Proposed

Local processes are going to vary tremendously from town to town, but the decisions are often made by city staff with input from a governing body. However, politics can definitely enter in when setting priorities. A state or federally funded project would be initiated by the local Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) if it’s located within a metropolitan area (as defined by the census), or by the state Department of Transportation (DOT) if it’s outside one of these areas. (As an aside, there was a great post recently on Streetsblog about how the MPO boards, which effectively set priorities for metro areas, are not representative of their constituents.)

2. The Street Design is Selected

The design will come from a codebook one way or another, but an important step is to first define the need for the project. Is there a need to make a street safer or to increase capacity? This should be a time when the community can have input on what the purpose of the project is, but unfortunately, they often don't have that opportunity.

Both city and state DOT standards can be well out of sync with the community’s actual needs (though many cities like Chicago and New York have re-done their standards in recent years). The National Association of City Transportation Officials has a set of guides that can be used and substituted for designs in urban settings. Another great design guide is "Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares" by the Congress for the New Urbanism and the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

I’d suggest that as soon as you get a whiff of local conversation about a new road, set up a meeting with your city councilor, mayor or another staff member to request more information and make it known that residents want to have a voice in choosing the design of the street. Here's a great guide for talking to elected officials so they'll actually listen.

3. The Street is Funded

The financing again depends on who owns the road and its function. There is a very prescribed process for state and federal projects in metropolitan areas that must go through their (non-representative) MPO board; and the state DOT (which administers federal funds) will rely on threats that the project will lose its federal funding if not done to federal standards to get their way.

In truth, there is a lot of design flexibility for federally funded projects, as long as it responds to the project needs that were defined early on — another reason to get your voice heard by the people in power as soon as possible. Locally funded projects also have fewer strings attached and a lot more flexibility.

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo

4. The Project is Confirmed and Initiated

The final decision is up to the owner and funder. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) makes the final decision for federally funded projects, but generally relies on the state DOT to advise them and mostly acts as a rubber stamp. 

The time to get a road or street project completed can vary a lot. It’s typically much longer for federally funded projects than local projects, due to the higher level of regulation and permitting that may be required.

So where can citizens intervene?

Residents need to speak up early, often and throughout a road or street project. People are often told that it is either "too early" for input if a project has not yet been planned and designed, or "too late" if these stages are past. Don’t listen to anyone who says these things. Start advocating and gathering support as soon as possible and keep that momentum going. It’s important to find allies if you’re advocating for a change or halt to a street project. Local chambers of commerce, neighborhood associations, religious communities and environmental groups are just a few of the organizations that might help fight for your cause.

The good news is that today, there is generally more effort to involve the public in projects than in the past. The bad news is that it is very uneven and not always meaningful. It is really important to have input in defining and selecting the projects in the first place — so they get off on the right foot. Focusing on safety for all users, rather than on expanding capacity, can lead to much better outcomes.

Note: R. Moses is not meant to be professional engineering advice nor should be relied upon as such. Consult your own technical professional before proceeding with your own project.

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