Funding equity is the missing link to our transportation future

Funding equity is the missing link to our transportation future

Jim Aloisi is a former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation. He is on the board of the advocacy group TransitMatters.

There are many moving pieces to our transportation system, no pun intended. In order to develop and maintain a truly sustainable mobility system you need to understand and respond to how the pieces fit together. The utility and attractiveness of public transportation is directly related to the rider’s ability to access a bus stop or train station. In most instances, that requires a safe and convenient pedestrian pathway connecting the rider and her transit destination.

We spend a lot of time talking about modal equity, but the reality is that modal equity will come only when we have funding equity and planning equity. Our approach to transportation funding and planning has shortchanged citizens who are drawn to walking and cycling. Two straightforward ideas that, if enacted into law, would go a long way toward ensuring modal funding equity and safe pedestrian pathways. Those ideas are what I call Transit Improvement Districts (TID) and Safety Impact Reviews (SIR).

The TID concept is simple: allow local communities meeting certain population or destination thresholds to impose a carbon impact parking assessment on nonresidential parking facilities with 10 or more spaces. This would operate in two ways: first, it would identify parking as a specific set-aside revenue source; second, it would enable the public and private sectors to leverage this dedicated fund to make important pedestrian and bicycle investments.

The SIR would require projects meeting a certain financial or scale threshold – such as public infrastructure and utilities – to demonstrate impacts on bike and pedestrian safety and accessibility, measured against set metrics. The outcomes can be reviewed and impacts mitigated to maximize safety. By establishing clear thresholds for an SIR, we can ensure that it will not add undue time or expense to implementing smaller scale improvements like pedestrian islands or bike lanes in discrete urban environments. The SIR would be structured to encourage safe multi-modal mobility, with a specific focus on three desired outcomes: reduced likelihood of crashes; greater access to, and increased use of, streets and open space; and maximized access to light, public open space, ventilation, and recreation opportunities.

For those who think this will add to costs and red tape, I would point to the unacceptably high costs of inaction – bodily injury and death, the costs of litigation, and the loss of economic growth (expressed as both private sector investment and housing values). Pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly neighborhoods are less burdened by all these factors.

If an SIR is part of transportation planning, we can ensure the kind of thoughtful public process that will improve safety and quality of life. History has proven that this issue will not take care of itself – the transportation planning and design system that exists today is not designed to produce outcomes that are friendly to today’s changing mobility habits. We cannot rely on the status quo to change the paradigm it has lived with comfortably for decades. A truly multi-modal transportation system begins with funding equity. The time to act is now.

This article was featured in WalkBoston’s March 2017 newsletter.
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