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Funding & Budgeting

Article

Local Budgets Should Prioritize Great Streets

Talking about building great streets is one thing , but building them requires funding. The magnitude of great street construction costs will vary based on the type of improvements. Funding is related to the discussion in the Fiscal Policy and Economics article, which refers to the public infrastructure as an investment of taxpayer money. Great streets indeed are an investment.

Before design and construction is possible, great streets must be made a budgetary priority. For most local governments, needs typically exceed the monies available, especially for aging transportation systems. Maintaining the existing system is all that some local government budgets can manage. Developing great streets, though, requires appropriate planning, budgeting and prioritization, which may often mean temporarily putting other projects on the back burner. Consider the following points when making budget decisions to prioritize great streets:

  • Investing in great streets can spur sustainable economic growth
  • Investing in great streets enhances community livability
  • Cities with great streets seem like great cities, and can attract new businesses and residents
  • Investing to add vehicular capacity is counter-productive to great streets
  • The region is beginning to prioritize great street development, which may be reflected in future TIP funding selection

All of these factors need to be considered when planning local budgets, and should encourage local governments to prioritize great streets. They are a healthy investment with great potential for high returns. In terms of transportation infrastructure, great streets are one of the best ways for local governments to add value to their communities.

Great Streets Can Be Cost-Effective

As the cost of labor and materials continues to rise, more and more funding is required to maintain and improve our transportation system. Some of the major costs associated with street improvements are:

  • Right-of-way acquisition
  • Utility relocation
  • Stormwater management
  • New pavement

These major components account for the majority of the costs associated with street improvement projects. For great streets, some or all of these components may be required. However, it is possible to make low-cost, yet still effective improvements that can begin to transform a tired thoroughfare into a great street. Starting the process of transformation can generate momentum, and in most cases can be done with relatively modest funding. Once momentum builds, it will likely be easier to secure additional funding for continued build-out of the plan.

Every street has potential:

Burned out street prior to investment
St. Louis, MO; Credit: CH2M HILL
Delmar today; after investment
St. Louis, MO; Credit: CH2M HILL

The transformation of the Delmar Loop is a great example of how small, incremental investments can transform localities over time.

Right-of-way acquisition, as noted above, can be a major component influencing the cost of street improvements. It is not surprising, then, that minimizing the amount of new right-of-way can help to keep these costs down. As described throughout the design section of this guide, how we choose to allocate space along the thoroughfare is a fundamental decision in great street development. Widening the thoroughfare to add vehicular capacity will usually have negative impacts on the pedestrian realm and on abutting land uses. It will also usually require additional right-of-way, and consequently will drive costs up. We must think differently about space allocation along the thoroughfare.

Rather than widen the thoroughfare, consider concepts such as road diets or lane width reduction to minimize the amount of space allocated for vehicular travel. Doing so creates additional space for other uses along the thoroughfare, such as wider sidewalks, tree lawns, on-street parking, bicycle lanes, and many others. Be sure to consider the resultant impact to vehicular operations when doing so, but remember, high speeds and free flowing traffic are not necessarily desirable attributes of great streets. Thinking about space allocation in this way can help keep right-of-way acquisition costs at a minimum, thereby making great street development more affordable for local governments and owning agencies.

Utility relocation, specifically the relocation of overhead utilities below ground, can certainly enhance the aesthetic environment along a thoroughfare. The cost of doing so, however, is significant. Investing in such relocation can reduce the budget available for other more important improvements along the street. Consider ways to work with the overhead utilities, such as decorative treatment of utility poles, traffic signal cabinets, and street lights. These elements can add value to the streetscape, while avoiding the high cost of burying overhead utilities.

Stormwater management is another high-cost element of most thoroughfares. Stormwater is often managed via underground enclosed systems that are costly to build and to maintain. Consideration of green stormwater management techniques can help to reduce the cost of such underground systems. If  green techniques are not an option, remember that moving the curb line will usually require significant reconstruction (and cost) of the underground stormwater system. If new dimensions for thoroughfare cross-section are desired, consider holding one curb line fixed to minimize these costs to one side only. See the stormwater article for more information.

Construction of new pavement is also a significant cost associated with street improvement. Pavement is obviously an essential element, both for vehicular travel and the pedestrian realm. Consideration of ways to minimize new pavement requirements, though, can help to keep costs down. It can also reduce the impervious surface area along the thoroughfare, creating green benefits as well.  

Consider Phased Implementation

Great street developments, in their entirety, often require significant financial investment. This can be a major roadblock for many entities that lack the funding for such initiatives. The ultimate vision, though, does not have to be built all at once. Phased implementation over time can be an effective way to spread the costs of great streets across a greater period of time, thereby reducing the immediate investment required. When phased implementation is used, it is very important to first establish a vision for the desired improvements. This vision must then control the short- and long-term planning of phased implementation, and all phases must be built consistent with the respective vision. Having the resolve to remain committed to the initial vision and plan is essential for long-term success when phased implementation is considered.

One effective way of utilizing phased implementation is to plan low-cost but still effective phases first. For example: re-striping a thoroughfare for a "road diet" at the time of regularly scheduled resurfacing. This low-cost improvement can dramatically improve a thoroughfare. If successful, it can be a catalyst for future investment (both public and private).  

Consider Private Cost-Sharing Opportunities

Transforming thoroughfares from auto-dominated places into great streets is good for local businesses and for local residents. Great streets improve quality of life, increase local property values, attract visitors who will spend money, and attract new businesses and residents. All of these results are worthy of investment. Helping private businesses and citizens to recognize these benefits can encourage cost-sharing of improvements and maintenance requirements. This is obviously not easily done, and it requires genuine community involvement on the part of local governments. If successful, though, such collaboration can increase the amount of money available for great street development.

Consider Private Cost-Sharing Opportunities

Transforming thoroughfares from auto-dominated places into great streets is good for local businesses and for local residents. Great streets improve quality of life, increase local property values, attract visitors who will spend money, and attract new businesses and residents. All of these results are worthy of investment. Helping private businesses and citizens to recognize these benefits can encourage cost-sharing of improvements and maintenance requirements. This is obviously not easily done, and it requires genuine community involvement on the part of local governments. If successful, though, such collaboration can increase the amount of money available for great street development.

When deciding to invest in great streets, early coordination with neighborhood associations, chambers of commerce, and other local citizens groups can greatly improve the chances for cost-sharing opportunities. Cost-sharing can take a variety of forms, such as special taxes, public landscaping maintenance, right-of-way donation, and others. Success is dependent on a public involvement process that is open to all and that effectively conveys the benefits that can result from investment in great streets.  

Special Taxing Districts Can Help Pay for Great Streets

Special taxing districts are not uncommon in our region. Mechanisms such as Tax Increment Financing are economic tools intended to help finance improvements within a defined district, and to consequently spur development. Both Missouri and Illinois have information on how this tool can be used within their respective jurisdictions:

It is important to remember that special taxing districts are intended to spur development and economic growth in areas that need help doing so. When communities that are already well-established begin to utilize special taxing mechanisms, they can negatively impact those communities struggling to establish their own great streets. We should think regionally about these issues, beyond individual districts.  The resources tab includes articles related to growth and tax increment financing in the metro area.

East-West Gateway Wants to Support Great Streets

This guide has been developed by East-West Gateway because the agency believes that great streets can enhance the quality of life throughout the St. Louis region. The agency believes that great streets development should be a priority for our region. The Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) process, conducted by East-West Gateway, is the primary mechanism by which regional transportation projects of any type, including great streets, receive funding.

The TIP is a financial and implementation schedule for projects receiving federal transportation funding in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Projects identified in the TIP are prioritized from, and must be consistent with, the region's 20-year Long-Range Transportation Plan, entitled Legacy 2030. The TIP consists of a five-year program: the current year plus the next four consecutive years. Each year the TIP is modified by adding a new fifth year and advancing the first of its future years to current status. While the projects in the TIP are shown for a five-year time period, the emphasis is on the first three years. Presenting a five-year span allows for a more systematic forecast of funding needs during a five-year planning cycle, and provides a more comprehensive view of the program for public information purposes.

The application process for TIP funding is spelled out in detail by East-West Gateway. Their web page EWG TIP Funding contains all the necessary information for local governments to apply. The workbook entitled Missouri Transportation Enhancement Funds is particularly helpful.

To learn more about how to move your great street project through the TIP process, contact the project programming staff at East-West Gateway.