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Could ‘Safe Streets’ funding be coming to a road near you?

A person in a suit speaks while holding a microphone
Crixell Matthews
VPM News
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg campaigns in Arlington County in 2020. Buttigieg recently touted a federal grant program to improve street safety in an interview with VPM News.

A grant program called “Safe Streets and Roads for All” will give localities direct funding to create safer roads. Safety advocates hope the money is spent correctly.

It’s no secret that the number of traffic fatalities nationwide is averaging higher than in previous years. That's confirmed by reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Locally, residents are fed up with speeding drivers, as earlier reported by VPM News. Many times, when residents want road infrastructure fixed, numerous hurdles prevent quick action.

But for localities that want to initiate these fixes quickly, help is on the way from the federal government.

“There are things we can do,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “We will be releasing a round of grants under our safe streets for all program. That's yet another program created by President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), that is helping communities plan for safety.”

The program will distribute about $5 billion to state and local governments for road safety improvements. Grant proposals for the first round of funding were due in September 2022. U.S. DOT officials told VPM News that the award announcements for the first round of funding are expected in the coming weeks.

Nationwide, the number of traffic fatalities leveled off in 2022, but in Virginia, the number increased by about 10%. That’s according to a recent report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“The level of traffic deaths that we experience is on par with the number of gun deaths that we experienced as a country: about 40,000 a year,” Buttigieg said. “It's moved in the wrong direction over recent years — seems to be leveling off, but it needs to be dramatically reduced.”

In 2022, Virginia had almost 1,000 traffic fatalities, including more than 140 pedestrian deaths, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. Speed was the primary cause of many fatal crashes in Richmond.

Tara Fitzpatrick, a Richmond safety advocate, is a coordinator for Safe Routes to School who also sits on the Safe and Healthy Streets Commission. As part of those duties, she regularly walks the streets to schools with local teachers and residents to monitor traffic. Recently, she even bought a speed radar gun to clock how fast drivers are going.

“It's my favorites purchase of the past year for my professional work. And it's come in, unfortunately, very handy,” she said.

Fitzpatrick said with less cars on the roads during the height of the pandemic, drivers sped up — and it hasn’t changed since people have physically gone back to work.

"Speed is a concern across the city, probably regionally across the state, and really across the country, when we speak to others,” said Fitzpatrick. “But I know for sure that in the work, and in my observations, we see that speed is for sure the common thread.”

Depending on where you live, the process to get speeders to slow down — whether that means installing a roundabout, a stop sign, speed humps or having an electronic speed monitoring sign — can take years to accomplish.

In Henrico County as well as the city of Richmond, local officials control most of the roads. But for main roads — and for counties like Chesterfield — VDOT sets the parameters of when traffic calming measures can be implemented and the requirements for how residents can get help.

“A proposed traffic-calming plan must be approved by 50 percent or more of the affected households in the community and endorsed by the [Board of Supervisors] or Town Council,” according to VDOT.

Safe Streets for All grants

While state lawmakers work out new bills in the General Assembly to try and alleviate the problem, the federal government is working on ways to help residents cut through red tape.

Buttigieg said he understands residents are frustrated with speeding drivers and poorly designed infrastructure. But he also noted that there are things they can do to help improve their roads.

“People may have more influence than they realize with their own local leaders,” he said. “And if you're concerned about safety and your neighborhood, your community, I would certainly encourage you to be active and involved in local decisions.”

The secretary said the majority of federal dollars coming out of the BIL are going to be subject to state and local decisions about how they're used.

Fitzpatrick already knows how she’d like to see the money spent.

“It should always be primary prevention, and it should not be reactionary,” she said. “I would like to see the city working towards using what we know as our high injury network. And obviously providing support in those areas.”

She wants the city to look at how entire streets function, making sure that all different modes of transportation — from cycling to bus transit to driving to walking — are taken into consideration.

“If we have access to a big pot of funding, I would really like us to look at it strategically, thoughtfully and proactively,” Fitzpatrick said.

The Safe Streets and Roads for All grant program is just one of almost two-dozen grant-based programs funded by the BIL, in which localities, tribal nations and state departments of transportation can apply for road improvement funding.

“There's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to use them to make it safer for everybody, including when it comes to issues like speeding,” Buttigieg said.

The Safe Streets program will provide roughly $5 billion in direct funding for local governments. From there, the money must be used to support “vision zero” plans and other road improvements to try and reduce crashes and fatalities “especially for cyclists and pedestrians.”

Localities must apply for the grants.

“We'll do what we can with the tools that we have federally,” said Buttigieg. “But a lot of this comes down to decisions around design around signage, even around enforcement and sometimes culture that are made by city and county leaders and at the state level.”

Last week, Richmond’s Safe and Healthy Streets Commission passed a resolution in support of applying for the grant. As in:

“Department of Public Works will submit a 2023 Federal Grant Application for SS4A to the USDOT for their upcoming FY2023 grant cycle.”

VPM News reached out to Richmond’s Department of Public Works for more information on pending or in-progress grant applications but did not receive a response before publication. VPM News also reached out to Henrico County but did not hear back before press time.

Chesterfield County transportation officials told VPM News via email that they submitted a Safe Streets for All planning grant request and applications for others under the BIL.

“We are working on three RAISE grant requests: Rt. 150/Rt. 60 Interchange and Multi-modal Improvements (capital grant), Hopkins Rd. (Beulah Rd. – Chippenham) Interchange Improvement and Road Diet (planning grant) and Powhite Parkway Extended, Phase II (planning grant). Hopefully, we can make the deadline for those (Feb. 28),” emailed Barbara K. Smith of Chesterfield’s transportation department.

Funding from the grants requires local governments to use the funds for specific projects to improve safety. The list of road improvements, as suggested by the U.S. Department of Transportation, is long.

For drivers, improvements range from adding shoulder rumble strips, wider edge lines (which many cyclists use when there’s no bike lane) to installing better signage along high-crash urban and rural corridors.

For pedestrians, money can be used to install more sidewalks, rectangular rapid-flashing beacons, traffic signal improvements, and audible pedestrian signals. And for cyclists, the goal is to add more bike lanes and expand networks.

Other improvements include using funds to change a road that has seen a high number of injuries into a street that better controls speeds by separating users and improving visibility. Guidelines also call for localities to work with community members to identify problem areas, and then carry out “quick-build street design changes.”

Ian M. Stewart previously was the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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