Dear Mayor Bartlett, and Councilors,
I'm very concerned about a major line item in the Capital Improvements Projects list under discussion at a series of excellent public meetings -- and I'm writing to recommend a different approach that is much more consistent with City policy and addresses the realities of a rapidly changing world.
At the public meetings you have heard repeated pleas for a more livable and walkable city -- for more and better sidewalks, a much better transit system, for a city that is more considerate to those on lower incomes, and a city that can be enjoyed by young and old alike. This confirms the strong preference for a safer, more transit- and pedestrian-friendly city that emerged from PlaniTulsa, now enshrined in the Comprehensive Plan.
In stark contrast, there was little or no political support expressed for widening yet more of Tulsa's roads, and with good reason. Our high-speed, high-cost street infrastructure has made Tulsa a much less safe place to get around.
The current CIP project list lavishes $60.25 million on widening streets in south Tulsa (on S. Yale Avenue and on E. 81st Street), while other items under the heading "Street Widenings/Expressways" shouldn't be described as street widening at all.
Widening streets is a discredited and counter-productive approach to reducing congestion (the reason usually offered for doing it). The best professional research makes this clear. Widening doesn't reduce congestion, it makes it worse. It induces more demand.
For 23.5 hours a day, a widened street delivers no benefit of any kind. It promotes faster driving and makes roads more dangerous for pedestrians and drivers alike. The city's engineers will acknowledge that the physical improvements sought have a social cost measurable in the severity of personal injuries and in deaths. Life has risks, but this particular risk is avoidable. For decades, speed and driver convenience have been prioritized ahead of the public health and safety -- core responsibilities of city government.
Widening is also extremely expensive, and $60 million is a lot of money. The money proposed to widen a handful of far-south Tulsa streets is thirty times the amount allocated to fixing Tulsa's sidewalks. It is six times the amount proposed just to begin to resolve Tulsa's failure to conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990. The amount proposed for ADA is the absolute minimum required in order to bring arterial sidewalks up to ADA standards in thirty years' time (2044 if we're lucky). That 30-year timeline doesn't include neighborhood streets, where most people actually live. So Tulsa will at best be conforming with the ADA fifty-four years after its enactment. Do we feel good about that?
The above are comparisons with just a couple of much better candidates for $60 million of hard-earned tax dollars.
Tulsa is among the deadliest cities for pedestrians, according to national data collected by the Department of Transportation.
It is more dangerous for pedestrians than the national average. State Farm Insurance research in 2000 showed Tulsa to have two of the top ten most dangerous intersections in the USA.
This paints a bleak picture of Tulsa to someone who might be thinking of relocating a business here, or holding a convention, or bringing up a family, or looking for a place to retire to. Residents and visitors alike prefer to enjoy a city with safe, attractive streets and a range of convenient, reliable transportation options. Tulsa falls far short of that, and the present proposed CIP list isn't going to change things much, especially compared to other cities investing more effectively than us in competing for the same new residents and businesses.
But there is some good news. Tulsa's newest policies look kindly on aspirations for a city with more and better transportation choices. Our Comprehensive Plan is a strong, competitive, business development strategy (as it were) for Tulsa. And the Complete Streets policy and manual are both in place, all dressed up and ready to party.
The Complete Streets policy has an approach for methodically identifying and resolving problems when designing streets. Widening a street is (or used to be) one of the solutions that might emerge from such an analysis. Nowadays, there are much more effective and cost-efficient solutions that actually work. Scores of our competitors are adopting those new solutions.
Such solutions take account of changing demographics. The amount that people drive has been declining steadily since 2004 -- and declining even faster among the millennial generation. People in their twenties drive 20 percent less than their parents did at the same age. That's a huge drop, and it shows no sign of slowing. The use of mass transit and commuting by bike have risen steadily. It is reflected in the uses of and demand for street infrastructure.
So a question is: Do elected officials really want to ignore a paradigm shift that will already be sixteen years old when this CIP bond issue is paid off? And are you and the council comfortable about ignoring authoritative data that, roughly translated, says "Read my lips: Don't waste taxes on widening streets. It doesn't work"?
To pre-determine that the optimal solution for a street improvement project will be to widen the street defies logic, of course, and it also flies in the face of city policy. To argue -- as some do -- that a widened street would be equipped with a sidewalk misses the point: namely that all factors should be considered, within the process authored by city transportation engineers. The project's goals and surrounding context are taken into consideration, stakeholders including residents are involved, and alternatives developed and evaluated. These might include criteria such as which approach generates the best return on tax-payers' dollars.
In a nutshell, Tulsa's politics are lagging behind its policies -- and behind public opinion.
Widening streets might once have been politically unavoidable (in the wake of the long, misguided march outwards from many cities' cores), but no longer. There is no substantive constituency in support of it other -- possibly -- than a few developers still wedded to a suburban model that requires Tulsans to pick up the tab for maintenance of infrastructure necessitated by far-flung development.
So the politics need to catch up at this point, before we waste a great deal of money. Before we waste several years during which we could be making life in Tulsa safer and more livable, instead of less so.
The south Tulsa widening projects serve a relatively small population far from the much more neglected, existing infrastructure close to the city's core (on all sides) where people, young and older alike, increasingly prefer or need to live. Re-investment closer to the core generates a much greater return on public investment -- a fact instinctively recognized by those appealing for re-investment in sidewalks, mass transit and downtown at the recent round of public meetings.
Many people at the meetings were younger adults -- the very people who are driving less, walking and cycling more, and concerned about their health. These are real voters who do not subscribe to the deadening mantra that 'Tulsans won't change -- they love their cars too much.'
I quite like my car too, to be honest. But why should my car and I be cosseted and further subsidized at 81st and Yale (especially when it's counter-productive)? Why should the minor inconvenience of a bit of congestion for five minutes a day be prioritized, instead of investing in Tulsa's impoverished transit system, or in our dire sidewalk system? It doesn't make sense, it's unfair, and it's a very poor use of our collective resources. If those particular roads need to be repaired, they should be reduced to a line item in the 'Pavement Condition' improvement budget.
Street widening is not a trend that you started, but you do have the power to end it.
Which brings me to my six recommendations for the transportation part of the Capital Improvements Projects. They represent a modest shift in the big scheme of things - but the outcome will be a more effective, better-balanced and motivating set of projects consistent with the city's own, new and progressive policies.
I commend them to you, Mayor, and Councilors, and thank you for your consideration. As a Tulsan, I thank you, too, for the hard and conscientious work done by everyone on this very important public enterprise.
Delete the Heading "Street Widening."
Create a new Heading, "Complete Streets" (to reflect new City policy).
Put all of the following budget items under Complete Streets: Riverside Drive, 24th to 33rd Place South; 25th W. Ave. Edison to Apache (design); Pine Street, Mingo to U.S. 169 (design); Gilcrease Expressway (local match); roadway, pedestrian and decorative lighting replacement; signing, pavement marking and delineation; traffic calming; traffic signal or roundabout; installation, modification and delineation; traffic signal pole replacement; Creek Turnpike Trail pedestrian bridge over Memorial Drive (study only); citywide ADA transition plan implementation; arterial sidewalk improvements; non-arterial sidewalk improvements; bicycle/pedestrian master plan implementation; IDL Entrance Rehabilitation (1st., 7th., and 8th Streets; signals at 1st and 2nd & Greenwood); corridor and small area planning.
Delete the $60.25 million funding for the 81st-and-Sheridan and the two Yale widening projects.
Re-classify the above three projects within the "Pavement Condition" (repair) project candidates, without changing the $470 million budget.
Re-allocate the $60.25 million thus released to: accelerate Tulsa's achievement of ADA standards; sidewalks, pedestrian scale lighting and streetscaping elements; transit (boost existing bus services substantially, and restore the BRT budget to safeguard effective service frequency levels); bicycle infrastructure provisions citywide, including bike racks' traffic calming.
The above letter was emailed August 8 to Mayor Bartlett and Councilors. No responses were received, and the Council has since adopted all the street-widening projects with no changes. Contact your elected leader if you want him to pay attention and invest your taxes in something productive instead of widening streets (and that might include not taking $60 million from your pocket in the first place.)
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