January 08, 2011

Complete Streets: What's the Right Policy?

At the end of what was already a lengthy Alexandria Transportation Commission meeting on Wednesday, the subject of Complete Streets was revisited.

First, some background. Back in July, the Transportation Commission approved a draft Complete Streets resolution and a draft city ordinance to be forwarded to the City Council. It was expected to go on City Council's docket sometime in the Fall, then got pushed to December.

Wednesday night, we learned why it hasn't appeared on City Council's docket yet. City staff came back to the Commission requesting a change. In a nutshell, they're asking the Commission to drop the ordinance and instead recommend to City Council a Complete Streets Policy instead. This set off a pretty heavy debate on top of what was already a long meeting.

The debate basically boiled into whether a policy/resolution or a city ordinance should be implemented. City staff provided several points as to why they opposed an ordinance and felt a resolution was better. They cited a comparison of other jurisdictions, finding that only 8 of the 23 had enacted a formal ordinance. Staff also had concerns regarding the added time and cost implementing an ordinance would have, namely updating their street design manual (more on this later), as well as the added time and cost of reviewing projects after the ordinance is implemented. They also felt that a resolution instead of a policy would give them more "wiggle room" in the event of a project with limited right-of-way, especially in regard to "Alexandria's narrow streets".

So instead of a formal ordinance, they support a policy/resolution along with a Complete Streets Checklist (effectively borrowed from CalTrans, the California DOT).

One Commission member was very vocal in that they couldn't see the difference between a policy/resolution and an ordinance, though other Commission members were more skeptical. None of staff's points are insurmountable in creating a Complete Streets ordinance. Especially of note, it was also brought out during questioning that the city's street design manual hasn't been updated in 25 years. This prompted comments from at least one Commission members that staff "desperately needs to update their design guidelines".

While a resolution would give staff "more wiggle room", there's concern by many (including several BikeWalk Alexandria members who were present for the meeting) that such "wiggle room" would also enable the city to "wiggle out" of implementing Complete Streets should a given project become too difficult or expensive. This same concern is in part what prompted the Commisssion to go with an ordinance to begin with, and this was vocalized by one of the Commission members.

I should reiterate that city staff are not opposed to Complete Streets. They are vocal in their support of it, and there's evidence to back that assertion up. They just feel that a formal ordinance is not the way to go, at least not at first. They want to start with a policy and see how it works at first. And during the course of the meeting, staff's stance subtly shifted to where they would eventually support an ordinance, but they feel the city "doesn't have the technical tools" available (presumably referring to the outdated street design standards) to craft an effective Complete Streets ordinance at the present time.

But all the indications right now are that they're being resistent to starting Complete Streets. As one BikeWalk Alexandria member put it, Complete Streets "cannot happen without a culture change among the people who design streets". That it took staff 6 months after the previous approval to come back to the Transportation Commission is an indication of this.

In the end, the Commission decided to table the Complete Streets issue until next month, and appointed two Commission members (one of whom appears to support an ordinance) to a sub-committee to look further into it.

So the stalemate continues for at least another month.

1 comment:

John T. Modal said...

Nice recap, thanks!

"the city's street design manual hasn't been updated in 25 years" - Wow!