Town Meeting to vote on ‘Complete Streets’ law

An incomplete street. Paul Mannix photo.

An incomplete street. Paul Mannix photo.

The Board of Selectmen is asking Town Meeting to opt into a state law that will make Arlington eligible for a new grants program for better streets.

Town Meeting action could lead to the Town’s first formal street-design policy, one requiring design features for all users.

The grant program, however, is still just a blueprint.

“Complete Streets” is the buzzword du jour for roads and sidewalks designed to benefit walking, mass transit, and cycling (and other uses) as well as motor-vehicle use.

The law, Chapter 90I, is intended

to encourage municipalities to regularly and routinely include complete-streets design elements and infrastructure on locally funded roads.

Some aspects of the Mass. Ave. project in East Arlington, and of the plan to redesign traffic flow in Arlington Center, are in the spirit of improving the road for all users.

However, this vote would be the first step in establishing a town-wide policy requiring such design features in future projects.

The legislature last year authorized $50,000,000 in bonds to pay for complete-streets projects in participating Massachusetts communities.

The funds were authorized in the same transportation bond bill that included funding for the Mass. Ave. Project in East Arlington.

Grant money could be used to fund improvements to Mass. Ave. and other local roads.

This program is modeled in part after the Green Communities Program, which rewarded early adopters (including Arlington) with extra financing for energy-efficiency measures such as LED street lighting and heating improvements in municipal buildings.

In 2010, Town Meeting adopted a new energy-efficient building code to qualify for these early incentives. The Town has received and spent more than a million dollars in Green Communities grants since then.

The Complete Streets Program, however, is slower out of the gate, and it may be up to Governor Baker to decide how far and fast it goes forward.

If Town Meeting accepts the legislation this spring, the Town (probably the Selectmen) will still have to adopt a complete-streets policy that will guide Town road projects in order to be eligible for grants.

Arlington will need to be certified by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and will have to compete further for grants on a case-by-case basis.

MassDOT will evaluate how well all Complete Streets communities live up to their adopted policies.

Elements of such a policy might include an explicit commitment to accommodate all users whenever a road is redesigned and criteria to be used to assess when to include, for example, a crosswalk or a bike lane.

The Complete Streets Ordinance adopted by the Somerville Board of Aldermen last year, for instance, sets the following standard:

The City of Somerville shall approach every transportation project and program as an opportunity to improve streets and the transportation network for all users, including conducting, once per year, a “rules of the road” education campaign to better inform cyclists of city/state traffic regulations.

Town Meeting, however, is only being asked to vote on the following:

That Section 1 of Chapter 90 I of the General Laws, as added by Chapter 79 Sec. 7 of the Acts of 2014 (Complete Streets Program), Section 34, be and is hereby is accepted.

The proposal will come up under Article 16 of the Town Meeting warrant.

Update: Town Meeting adopted the proposal on May 4.

Thanks to Paul Mannix for making his photo available for reuse under a creative commons license.

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