The FHWA now controls some local streets: The latest on why that matters

The FHWA now controls some local streets: The latest on why that matters

Broadway Bridge detour-5

NW Broadway is a federally controlled
piece of the National Highway System.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

We continue to track an interesting policy development that could have wide-ranging impacts on several local streets here in Portland. As we first shared back in September, the new federal transportation bill, MAP-21, included an expansion of the National Highway System (NHS) to include “all urban and rural principal arterials.”

In Oregon, that means as of October 1st there are 600 new miles of roads that are now part of the NHS.

Locally, this means several key streets that used to be solely managed by the City of Portland are now under the purview of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). As such, the streets have an entirely new system of oversight, they must adhere to federal design, engineering, and performance standards, and so on. That gives PBOT much less leeway and independence to do innovative designs and to make changes to the streetscape without a potentially onerous process of seeking federal approval.

New information from ODOT about the implications of this policy make it clear that it’s on the issue of design standards where the NHS expansion could have the largest impact on Portland.

For example, among the streets caught up in the expansion is NW Broadway from SE Grand to Burnside (through Old Town). That section of Broadway is one of the busiest bicycling thoroughfares in the city and it’s a prime candidate for major changes in the near future. There has long been talk of extending the existing protected bikeway on Broadway near Portland State University up to Burnside and eventually to the Broadway Bridge. But since it’s now part of the NHS, the design of Broadway must adhere to design standards sanctioned by the FHWA. Unlike the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide PBOT prefers to use, they would now have to use the federally-approved street design manual known as the AASHTO Green Book. And at this point, that manual doesn’t even include protected bike lanes as an option.

If an engineer at PBOT wanted to redesign Broadway with a protected bikeway or some other treatment that wasn’t federally approved (bike boxes and sharrows were both installed prior to federal approval), they would have to seek an official “design exception” from the FHWA.

Another issue is lane width. PBOT has been narrowing lanes to 10 feet whenever possible in order to create more space for bike lanes. However, guidance released from ODOT clearly states that NHS roadways “must have at least 11 foot lanes, and in some cases 12 foot lanes are required. Ten foot lanes are not allowed…”

One source put it this way: “When a road is designated as NHS, then AASHTO standards automatically apply, which generally require faster, wider roads.”

Beyond design standards, the new policy could impact project selection, funding, and so on.

Since my last report, ODOT has set up an NHS Expansion Working Group to figure out how to deal with the new regulations. Paul Smith, a senior planner with PBOT, is a member of the group (which had their second meeting last week).

ODOT Federal Affairs Advisor Travis Brouwer told me via email recently that they’re forming a sub-working group to look specifically at the design issues. ODOT’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Program Manager Sheila Lyons is in the group. One of their tasks, says Brouwer, will be, “Reviewing Oregon’s Highway Design Manual and recommending revisions as well as looking at the processes that may need to be put in place to ensure that local governments can move forward with projects that improve mobility and safety for all users.”

For their part, PBOT says they’re awaiting more federal design guidance and they referred me to ODOT for further information.

While ODOT is downplaying any negative impacts this policy shift might have locally and on the ability to build bike-friendly streets, other sources aren’t so sure. “This could be a major disaster and set context-sensitive design and the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users way back,” said one former ODOT staffer. “Whoever told you this wasn’t a big deal, doesn’t understand how design standards work or how engineers think… Trust me – this is a very big deal,” said another source.

At this point, the hope is that PBOT’s Paul Smith and bike-sensitive ODOT staff have strong enough voices in the process that the ultimate guidance and policy going forward is more flexible than it is now. Stay tuned.

— Learn more about the NHS expansion via this special page set up by ODOT.

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