During yesterday's marathon county council budget session that finalized the FY21 budget, millions in funding for key bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects originally part of the proposed FY21 capital budget were cut. While we are still waiting for the final budget to be posted, it is clear from the press release put out last night by the county that certain pedestrian and bicycle construction projects, including funding for bike projects part of the Bike Howard Express initiative and the pedestrian projects part of the School Pathways to School program, no longer have a clear timetable for competition.
Leading up to these cuts, Streets for All Howard County characterized the amendments as "draconian budget cuts (that will prevent Howard County) from fixing our unsafe/deadly intersections, helping our kids walk safely to/from school, making it possible for those in wheelchairs to safely get around, and creating safe bike paths and sidewalks that connect us.
Meanwhile, Council member Liz Walsh, who supported these cuts, posted on Facebook that "the money’s there, it’s been there, DPW’s just not done so much work with it. No reason it couldn’t still now."
As it typically the case in these matters, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In the lead up to these cuts, I studied the budget documents on the Bike Howard and Walk Howard website and spoke with Department of Transportation Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Chris Eatough to get a better understanding of current funding and future plans for bike and pedestrian projects in the county.
Bicycle and Pedestrian infrastructure projects take time. Larger infrastructure projects, like long off-street shared-use paths, are multi-year projects that require significant front-end work including design, engineering, water management and utilities planning, property acquisition and obtaining all necessary easements. While these upfront activities can take significant time, they typically only account for about 20% of project costs. The bulk of funding (~80%) is not used until the construction phase of a project. So, while Council member Walsh is correct that there is significant carry-over money previously allocated for cycling projects, that money has already been allocated to specific projects that are well into the planning phase and currently awaiting construction.
As an example, the Cedar Lane Pathway project, which will not be impacted by these cuts, entails building an off-road path along the 2 mile stretch of Cedar Lane from Grace Drive all the way up to Little Patuxent Parkway in order to connect to the Downtown Columbia Pathway at Howard County General Hospital, providing a continuous route from Hickory Ridge and points west to Downtown Columbia . Funding was allocated to this project prior to FY19, the majority of planning work has been completed, and approximately $1 million remains in carry-over funding for construction. The reason that construction has not yet started is because easements still need to be obtained from a homeowners association along Cedar Lane. Once that last hurdle is cleared, construction should begin.
While projects already in the pipeline that have received prior appropriations may continue despite these funding cuts, Bike Howard has a number of projects in three year Bike Howard Express plan that relied on funding anticipated to come from the FY21 capital budget to move forward. These are the projects most at risk. This handy table shows that the $2.25 million of county funding anticipated for FY21 was set to go towards three major bike projects. These include:
The South Entrance Trail (which would create a new path under Rt 29 connecting Downtown Columbia to Stevens Forest and points east)
The Dobbin Road Pathway (a shared use pathway along Dobbin Road from Oakland Mills Road to Snowden River Parkway), and
Robert Fulton Drive Shared Use-Path (a project to improve bicycle and pedestrian access to Columbia Gateway from surrounding communities and connect to existing bike projects).
With the funding reduced, though not fully eliminated, it is reasonable to expect that one or more of these projects may not move forward at this time. It is also worth noting that the financing plan for some of these projects was to rely on grants from state or federal programs that have not yet been secured.
On the pedestrian side, the Howard County Department of Transportation has been planning for a number of projects under the school pathways program that had it funding cut yesterday to the tune of $480,000. These projects were to fund installation of sidewalks and paths to provide for improved routes for students to get to school, particularly focusing on improvements that would convert bus-riders to walkers. Many neighborhoods meet the criteria to be walkers (<1 mile to an elementary school or <1.5 miles to a middle school or high school), but a bus is provided if there currently is no safe way to walk to school, such as intersection without a crosswalk or stretch of road without a sidewalk.
These pedestrian project would have filled in those gaps by improving sidewalks, intersections or creating new pathways so it becomes safe to walk to school and eliminating a need for a bus. Thus, these capital expenditures would have resulted in immediate operating expense reductions by reducing school transportation costs. Approximately ~20 such projects had been identified and the Office of Transportation was in process of analyzing the cost-benefit of these projects (measured in terms of # of students that could become walkers compared to the cost of the improvement), and had been planning to present these potential projects for community input shortly. During school redistricting processes, extra consideration is given not to convert walkers into bus riders, so these sidewalk improvements could decrease the likelihood in the future that students are reassigned to a new school.
While these projects were cut, several additional budget adjustments were made to reverse the proposed cuts and provided increased allocations for road resurfacing, and other pedestrian and multi-modal transportation initiatives (including development of the Complete Streets Manual and ADA ramps), as well as traffic-improvement installations.
The need for improved transportation infrastructure has become even more apparent during the COVID-19 crisis. In the era of physical distancing, many of us are relying on sidewalks, paths and bike lanes for both physical activity and a mental reprieve from isolation. For as long as coronavirus is in our community, cycling offers a safer mode of transportation than public transit and walking to school offers reduced risk compared to riding school bus. These short-sided cuts will significant reduce the quality of life for residents in Columbia and elsewhere in our county and make it more difficult and less safe to get around both throughout the duration of the corona virus crisis and well into the future.