By Jonathon Weber, Complete Streets Program Manager
Legislators in the Vermont House have proposed a variety of transportation reforms aimed at reducing carbon emissions. There's a lot in this bill, from complete streets to electric buses and more. We've submitted a statement to the House Transportation Committee, and our staff will be working with legislators and partner organizations to tweak and improve the legislation over the coming weeks. For now, here's what you need to know about what this bill says about walking, biking, and rolling, and what Local Motion's positions are on the various provisions.
You can track and read the bill here.
Before we get into what's in the bill, let's talk about two key elements Local Motion wants to see added.
A Vermont State Standards Update
We recommend allocating funds for an update of VTrans’ Vermont State Design Standards, and setting a timeline for completion of this update. The need to update the State Standards was identified in a report commissioned by VTrans in 2013, and doing so would support the goals of H.552 by ensuring that complete streets and smart growth principles are applied to transportation projects in a way that supports climate action goals and community vitality.
Increased Bike and Pedestrian Program Funding
While we support funding increases proposed in the bill for the Better Connections and Better Places programs, we strongly recommend directing support to VTrans’ Bike and Pedestrian Program. This well-established grant is underfunded, with annual requests greatly exceeding the amount of funding available. We recommend doubling the amount of funding allocated to the Bike and Pedestrian Program so that it can at least meet current demand. This will allow many shovel-ready pedestrian and bike projects to be constructed and help the state rapidly transition to more sustainable modes of transportation, improve safety, attract tourism, and support the vitality of our communities.
This increase in funding could include a requirement that VTrans collect safety data on a number of pedestrian-safety-oriented projects each year and report on effectiveness, thus fulfilling the spirit of the currently proposed Pedestrian Safety Pilot Program (Section 23) without requiring VTrans staff to establish and administer an entirely new and separate program.
Here's what's already in the bill regarding walking, biking, and rolling, and our position on each provision.
Complete Streets (Section 18)
What the bill does: H552 strengthens the language in the existing complete streets statute, which will hopefully result in more VTrans and municipal projects including complete streets elements.
Our position: We support the strengthening of language in the complete streets statute and hope that this will result in more projects incorporating elements that make streets safer for all users. We also recognize the problems with attempting to mandate design elements across the entire state via statute. This is one reason why updating the Vermont State Standards is so important.
Currently, VTrans does not generally construct sidewalks as part of its transportation projects except for in rare cases when it determines them to be “functionally necessary” or when a municipality agrees to pay for both the construction and maintenance of them. We believe that, just as it is responsible for building and maintaining certain roadways for use by people driving, the State and VTrans should take responsibility for building and maintaining sidewalks for use by people walking and using assistive devices—especially since many state highways are extremely dangerous for these vulnerable users.
Therefore, we recommend that, similar to its Bicycle Priority Corridor Map, VTrans collaborate with communities to identify priority pedestrian corridors along state highways. Pedestrian facilities such as sidewalks, shared use paths, and safe intersections, would be considered “functionally necessary” along priority pedestrian corridors, which would result in VTrans funding their construction as part of transportation projects.
Replace Your Ride and E-bike Incentives (Section 7)
What the bill does: Allocates $250k for e-bike incentives (currently funded at $50k) and sets incentive values ranging from $100 to $400 based on income and depending on whether the purchase is of a complete bike or kit.
Our position: We support these incentives as an important tool for Vermonters who want to transition to e-bikes, which are a cleaner, healthy mode of transportation. If not already provided by other means, we recommend allocating additional funding to cover administration, promotion, and data collection for the e-bike incentive program. We also support the replace your ride program, which provides rebates that can be used to replace gas guzzlers with forms of sustainable transportation, including bikes and e-bikes.
Supporting Transit (Section 8)
What the bill does: H552 funds fare-free transit for fiscal year 2023, allocates funding for electric buses and micro-transit programs, and requires a study on the formation of a State Transit Authority.
Our position: We support the transit provisions in the bill, but we think the state needs to do more to improve service and amenities. Transit is an essential service for the large and likely growing population of Vermonters who do not drive. These include some of our most vulnerable populations: those with disabilities, low-incomes, BIPOC folks, New Americans, our children, and our elderly adults. The establishment of fare-free transit in Vermont was one good side-effect of the pandemic, and we support the continuation of fare-free rides.
However, it is not enough to sustain transit at its current level of service and amenities, or worse, to allow service cuts. Our response to reduced ridership during the pandemic must not be service reductions. This creates a negative feedback loop in which a decline in ridership results in reductions in service, which result in further declines in ridership. Furthermore, cutting service can result in a higher number of people on each remaining bus. This constitutes a public health hazard, and a further disincentive to ridership that is borne by the most vulnerable Vermonters. This effect is already visible in our urban areas, where riders are often packed into buses without room to move or maintain safe distances.
Devoting millions of dollars to subsidies for electric cars that will largely benefit well-off Vermonters while allowing transit to remain in its marginal state or degrade even further runs contrary to our commitment to climate justice. We must go beyond the current funding allocation and make the necessary investments so that transit is the quickest, most accessible, and most convenient way to travel distances outside of walking range—especially in our more densely populated areas.
Bicyclist and Pedestrian Highway Access (Section 21)
What the bill does: Sets a variety of requirements aimed at making roads safe for people walking and biking through pavement markings, lower speed limits, and roadway expansion.
Our position: We appreciate the desire to make all roadways in the state safe for walking and biking. We share this desire. However, we do not generally believe that mandating design through legislation is the right approach to achieving safe infrastructure for walking, biking, and rolling. If it were to be enacted, the effect of this section of the bill would mostly be to require VTrans and municipalities to either create designated space for people walking and biking on every roadway by either widening pavement or narrowing lanes, or to paint shared lane markings and reduce speed limits.
This is problematic on a variety of levels. First, it is important to acknowledge that the State and municipalities have limited budgets and capacity to fund and complete projects. This legislation would require the State and municipalities to embark on a massive campaign of widening, painting, and signing, and this undertaking would yield very high-stress infrastructure. Importantly, this would likely draw resources and attention from more effective projects seeking to build infrastructure that would be safer and more widely utilized. It would also commit VTrans and municipalities to massive amounts of additional ongoing maintenance, and likely have various environmental consequences.
Prohibition on Bicyclists Riding Abreast (Section 22)
What the bill does: Prohibits the currently legal practice of riding two abreast on bikes.
Our position: We strongly support the legal right for people biking to ride two abreast. This practice is an important safety strategy that vulnerable users sometimes employ to increase visibility and keep all road users safe. We are pleased that legislators have recently stated that the proposed prohibition will be removed, and we will follow along to ensure that happens.
In-Street Pedestrian Crossing Signs (Section 24)
What the bill does: Allows municipalities to install in-street crosswalk signs on state and town highways, and keep them in place for 24 hours a day from May 1 through October 15.
Our position: In-street pedestrian crossing signs are an effective, low-cost means of increasing crosswalk visibility and driver yield rates. We support municipalities having the right to install them. Currently, towns have to go through a permit process to have these signs installed on state highways, and VTrans requires that they be removed at night. This is a significant logistical barrier to their use, and means that the signs are not in place to increase crosswalk visibility at night.
Speed Limits (Section 25)
What the bill does: Gives municipalities the ability to set speed limits on state highways within certain designated areas.
Our position: We appreciate the intent to give towns some ability to manage speeds on state highways. Unfortunately, speed limits do not govern the speed at which drivers operate. Speeds are largely determined by the design of the roadway and the adjacent land use. Drivers intuitively adjust how fast they drive based on cues such as the roadway’s width, sight distances, pedestrian and commercial activity along the roadway, and the presence of parking and street trees. This is why, for example, it is comfortable to drive on I89 at 65 MPH, but none of us would drive through a village center or downtown at that speed, even if there were no speed limits posted or other cars in the way.
It is difficult for municipalities to achieve design changes on state highways that actually result in lower speeds and improved safety. This is because VTrans requires a minimum pavement width of 14 feet from the centerline of the roadway to any vertical element such as a curb. This results in two-lane roads that are wider than they should be, and encourages higher speeds.
Some towns have adopted control and responsibility for state highways through VTrans’ Class 1 Town Highway Reclassification program. Once a town has converted the state highway to Class 1, it is able to slow speeds with narrower pavement widths and other means. But reclassification typically comes with increased costs on behalf of the town, which keeps many from reclassifying. This is especially true for smaller communities with fewer resources.
We believe that the way to achieve the desired result of lower speeds is by reforming VTrans’ requirements for minimum pavement widths, so that towns do not need to reclassify in order to have safe streets, and so that VTrans can make roads under its jurisdiction safer for all users. Because the 14-foot pavement width is tied to the width of VTrans’ snow plow blades, a potential solution would be for VTrans to adopt the use of narrower plow blades, at least in denser areas where lower speeds are imperative. This is a reform which could be achieved through an update to the State Standards, as recommended above.
We'll keep you posted on this bill as it progresses through the legislature!