Lawmakers Discuss Road Safety, Spike in Traffic Deaths at House Hearing
June 10, 2022|Ethan McLeod
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit held a hearing this week on how to improve the nation’s road infrastructure and reduce traffic deaths. The hearing topic was “Addressing the Roadway Safety Crisis: Building Safer Roads for All.” It came on the heels of NHTSA’s release of 2021 traffic fatality data last month that estimated U.S. traffic deaths climbed to 42,915, a 10.5 percent increase since 2020 and the highest number of roadway fatalities in 16 years.
“For too long we have accepted preventable traffic deaths as inevitable, prioritized speed over safety, and focused solely on moving cars quickly,” said subcommittee chair Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), noting the subcommittee discussed similar issues during a similar hearing three years ago.
Lawmakers heard from state and local government officials, multimodal transportation advocates and traffic engineering and highway construction professionals about how the federal government can help states and local jurisdictions better prioritize road users’ safety, obtain funds for road projects, and shift assessments of roads’ success to metrics based on safety, rather than the speed and volume of traffic moved. The hearing also focused particularly on roadway safety programs funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
- Elaine Clegg, President, Boise City Council
- Shawn Wilson, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, and President, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials
- Ludwig Gaines, Executive Director, Washington Area Bicyclist Association
- Billy Hattaway, Principal, Fehr & Peers, a civil engineering firm and transportation consultant
- Cindy Williams, President, Time Striping Inc., and Board Member, American Traffic Safety Services Association
IIJA funding for roadways
Witnesses highlighted ways that several new and existing programs funded by IIJA can help state and local entities improve roadways’ safety everywhere, from cities to rural areas. The law, enacted in November, created new programs and bolstered existing funding mechanisms, including:
- Safe Streets and Roadways for All (SS4A), which provides $1 billion in competitive grant funding annually for the next five fiscal years to local government entities, tribal governments, metropolitan planning organizations, and multijurisdictional groups — not states, notably — for planning and implementation of safety improvements to ultimately achieve a “Vision Zero” goal for eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries.
- The Rural Surface Transportation Grant Program, which offers $2 billion in competitive funding over the next five fiscal years, including $300 million in fiscal 2022 alone, to states, local jurisdictions, tribal governments, MPOs, and multi-jurisdictional groups. These can help support and expand infrastructure in rural areas, such as highways, bridges, freight, ports, passenger rail, and public transportation, “to increase connectivity, improve the safety and reliability of the movement of people and freight, and generate regional economic growth and improve quality of life,” per USDOT.
- The Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), which received $16.8 billion in formula-based funding over five years, a $1.8 billion increase from the last five-year authorization under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act.
Williams, whose highway construction and traffic-control devices company is based in Arkansas, offered an example of how the new Rural Surface Transportation Grant Program can improve conditions where she works. It reserves 15 percent of funding specifically for addressing rural road fatalities due to lane departures, a trend that FHWA has said accounts for about one-third of annual traffic fatalities. Williams said such a change could help to significantly improve rural road safety.
Wilson added that IIJA’s increased funding of HSIP will allow states to expand efforts to identify and implement roadway improvements. Of SS4A, he said it creates a new opportunity for states, even if they are not the recipients receiving such grants, to provide technical assistance to localities and smaller governmental bodies and MPOs on how to collaborate on planning, design, operation, and maintenance of public roads in ways that prioritize human safety over traffic speeds and volumes. More broadly, he said increases in roadway safety funding from IIJA will improve states’ ability to invest in data collection and highlight harms to non-drivers, which states can then use to tailor investments to communities in need of traffic calming.
Updating the MUTCD
Much of the testimony over the nearly three-hour hearing revolved around the need for flexibility in roadway design. To that end, witnesses emphasized the importance of the IIJA’s language requiring the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), an FHWA-issued document that sets national standards for traffic signage, road surface markings, and signals, to drop its requirement that local roadways must be built to state standards. The IIJA also mandates that USDOT adopt an updated version of MUTCD — to be the first new edition since 2009 — by May 2023 and then every four years thereafter. Proposed revisions to the manual would make a safe systems approach to traffic design a top priority, allow for reduced speed limits, remove red tape for traffic-calming tools, and more.
Asked by Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-IL) how this can help prioritize pedestrians and other non-motorists, Clegg described the existing MUTCD as “arcane” and said it needs to be a more concise, user-friendly manual that all levels of transportation agencies can easily follow. She recommended USDOT listen to feedback accepted last year during a public comment period about proposed revisions, which drew more than 35,000 comments.
Another recurring theme was the effects of car-centric road design and insufficient roadway infrastructure serving communities of color. Rep. Greg Stanton (R-AZ), whose district includes tribal territories, highlighted traffic collisions as a leading cause of death for Native Americans and asked how to prioritize improving traffic safety in tribal areas with limited technical capacity and resources. Rep. Kai Kahele (D-HI) noted similar issues with indigenous, low-income communities on his state’s islands. Wilson explained that state transportation departments can provide technical assistance to those communities and assist them with best practices in planning, delivery, and operations, including helping them to apply for SS4A funding. Clegg added that there are opportunities for more intergovernmental collaboration, citing an example from Idaho in which she said surrounding jurisdictions provided technical assistance to a rural tribal government in in the town of Lapwai and advised the relocation of a new housing development so that children would not have to cross a highway to get to a nearby school. She said such cooperation among agencies in an area should be required for roadway planning processes.
Lawmakers also focused on disproportionately high fatalities for Black road users. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) pointed to high traffic death rates for Black children particularly, and asked for guidance for addressing that inequity at the state level. Wilson said his department in Louisiana has paid more attention to equity factors in its data, which is used to make project and funding decisions, by looking to contextual metrics. In addition to using data points like average daily traffic, road-section length, and population density in crash assessments, he said the state is also looking at the percentage of nearby households without access to a vehicle, the conditions of sidewalks and lighting, and the percentage of households living below the poverty line. Transportation agencies can include such factors in assessments to better serve minority populations with high proportions of non-drivers and use that data to support implementation of multimodal roadway designs.
Several lawmakers, including Reps. Rick Crawford (R-AR) and Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) echoed the rural-versus-urban argument about transportation priorities from a similar hearing three years ago, noting the roadway needs of rural communities differ considerably from those of urban areas. They said they take issue with the idea of adding bike lanes to rural road networks that are already congested with commercial traffic.
There’s a balancing act required of state and local governments in designing Complete Streets that can serve both drivers and cyclists, Wilson responded — and, importantly, programs like SS4A don’t enforce a one-size-fits-all approach for all areas. For example, he said, guidelines provide flexibility for technical design elements such as striping and edge lines. Williams concurred, saying flexibility in transportation design must extend from state transportation agencies right down to the local level to offer a context-sensitive approach to roadway design.
Gaines added that even if cyclists aren’t presently using those rural roads, adding new facilities that slow down traffic and invite other mode users out can help to reduce the stress on a transportation system. He said he has observed that happening in the D.C. suburbs where his organization works.
Truck parking shortage
An often-overlooked issue in the national traffic safety conversation is the “absolutely critical shortage” of safe and adequate parking for freight drivers, said Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He cited a Statewide Truck Parking study conducted by the Texas Department of Transportation that tallied more than 2,300 crashes involving parked trucks, including 138 deaths, between 2013 and 2017.
Long-haul drivers often opt for roadside or exit ramp spaces because there are not enough off-road spaces set aside for them, putting them and other drivers at risk, added Rep. Mike Bost (R-IL). Bost questioned why states have not prioritized this need. Wilson said he agreed with those concerns based on experiences in Louisiana, but his department has not had the authority to appropriate funds for parking on highway projects. Bost asked that AASHTO make a concerted effort to serve its members to collect about their state-level challenges with truck parking shortages.
(In a related, and bipartisan, development, DeFazio and his ranking minority member, Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO), sent a joint letter to Transportation Secretary Buttigieg on June 7 (obtained by Bloomberg) asking him to prioritize truck parking projects when selecting winners in competitive grant programs.)
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