Photo by Ethan McLeod

A Baltimore City Council committee heard hours of mostly supportive testimony on Wednesday night for a bill that would require the city to ultimately prioritize pedestrian, cycling and public transit over cars, aligning with Complete Streets guidelines.

Supporters, ranging from cyclists to merchants to transit policy advocates to academics, packed the room to testify in favor of the proposal by Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who’s made Complete Streets a priority since taking office in December 2016. Mixed in with rally cries for transportation equity and traffic solutions were concerns from several city agencies about the effects of a citywide transportation policy overhaul on existing parking and public utilities, and how the whole thing will be paid for.

Dorsey has pitched his bill as a solution for pedestrian and driver safety, congestion and pollution caused by cars, and an absence of infrastructure connecting residents of Baltimore’s segregated neighborhoods to economic opportunity.

“When we spend money on Complete Streets instead of less equitable projects, we improve more communities and create more jobs than we would otherwise,” he told the room at City Hall.

His measure would require the Department of Transportation to reduce disparities in transit systems and adhere to a Complete Streets manual for designing roads and transportation infrastructure. It would also create a council of eight agency heads to coordinate Complete Streets’ implementation, and require DOT’s director to update both the council and the public annually on the initiative’s progress.

At the hearing, Dorsey walked through the history of Baltimore’s transportation system. It was once a “transportation leader in many ways” until the 1950s, he said. After that, traffic engineers “took a sharp turn toward prioritizing cars” by building large roadways—oftentimes through black neighborhoods—to give white commuters in the suburbs easier access to cities.

While other cities have scaled back their car-centric transportation plans to cater more to pedestrians and transit riders–more than 1,200 Complete Streets policies are in place today, Dorsey said in a presentation–Baltimore has failed to do so. The result, the councilman argued, is a Baltimore left with frequent crashes, high rates of asthma and pollution caused by auto emissions, and a disconnected city layout in which “people of color bear the true burden” of transportation inequity.

City lawmakers enacted a Complete Streets resolution in 2010, but the measure was non-binding for DOT, did not enforce steps for implementation and failed to address equity.

Liz Cornish, executive director of Bikemore, which has worked closely with Dorsey on the bill’s language, reiterated that Baltimore’s roads were not been planned with safety in mind. She referenced a February case in which a Jeep crashed into Barclay Elementary/Middle School, sending a handful of students to the hospital.

“This street was designed so that a car could drive that fast,” she said. “What Complete Streets intends to do is create legislation that holds all of our city’s departments accountable so that… we don’t design streets that allow cars to drive fast enough that they could crash through the wall of an elementary school and injure students.”

Other proponents preached the need for better transit. Regina Lansinger, director of Hamilton-Lauraville Main Street in Northeast Baltimore, said an improved bus system could bring more commercial activity to her corridor, benefiting small businesses.

“If we could control traffic, if we could see that bus transportation can be more reliable so people are not sitting or standing endlessly waiting for transportation—these are all good things.”

An MTA CityLink bus. Photo by Scott218, via Wikimedia Commons.

The agency with the largest role in implementing Complete Streets, DOT, has backed the bill. Transportation Director Michelle Pourciau testified that “streets should be planned, designed, built to accommodate all uses safely, equitably and efficiently,” and that “the success of our network will be determined by the people we safely move and the quality of their experience.”

Pourciau, who was confirmed for her position in fall of 2017, defended DOT’s record of pedestrian- and bike-friendly projects since the 2010 resolution with a list: “refreshed” sidewalks, installation of more than 2,300 Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant ramps, adoption of the Bike Master Plan, the launch of the Baltimore Bike Share system and the revival of traffic cameras, among other efforts.

But asked by Councilman Leon Pinkett if “it should have taken Baltimore nine years” to enact an actual Complete Streets framework, she responded, “I think that it would have called for building a plan,” and said that one “may have helped the city move faster.”

While the seven-member Land Use and Transportation Committee found Dorsey’s bill favorable, changes are already in the works. A fiscal report from Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s office, published yesterday, included suggestions from several agencies, including DOT, the Department of Public Works and the Department of Housing and Community Development.

DPW’s concerns include potential effects on streets’ right of way, turning radii for trash trucks, plows and other utility vehicles, and increased road maintenance costs. At the hearing, Marcia Collins, DPW’s legislative liaison, mentioned utility vehicles’ access to roads and the city’s street sweeping program, which she said could be impeded along curbs by new bike lanes.

“These are all things that are practical considerations, and it’s not to put problems in the way, they are just things that we have to think about as we move forward,” she said.

The Parking Authority of Baltimore City has cited concerns about cuts to parking spaces and, as a result, meter revenues. The agency had asked the committee to defer voting on the bill last night.

Perhaps the biggest sticking point for any city agency: funding. A “conservative” estimate from Young’s office said Complete Streets’ implementation and maintenance would cost around 1.4 percent of DOT’s $206 million fiscal 2018 budget, which comes out to about $2.9 million. The city’s Finance Department noted in the fiscal report that “expected implementation costs of the legislation do not have a dedicated funding source,” and has thus opposed the bill.

But Dorsey and others expressed optimism about finding money to foot the bill. Dorsey has said the city can rely upon a mix of federal and state grants and private money, and noted that in Chicago, the city’s health department played an instrumental role finding grants to implement Complete Streets policies. Porcieau also alluded to more potential to secure federal dollars for large transportation projects, noting the $1.1 million TIGER grant that helped fund a study to renovate the Hanover Street Bridge.

Dorsey’s bill now heads to a work session, where agency heads will work with lawmakers on suggested changes to the legislation.

“We are going to have to all work together as we go into the work session and sit down at the table and try to get the best Complete Streets deal that we can get,” said Young. “Baltimore deserves Complete Streets just like any other city that has Complete Streets.”

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...