Jurisdictional Obstacles Municipalities Face when Redesigning Main Streets

By: Maximillian Mahalek

Throughout the United States, municipalities are seeking ways to bring life back to their downtown districts. One of the most significant land-use tools relied upon to achieve this revitalization is a “complete streets” program.[1] A complete street is one designed to better accommodate cyclists, pedestrians, and, where present, public transit systems.[2] They often feature wide sidewalks, bicycle lanes (possibly protected), articulated crosswalks, parallel or angled parking spaces, central turning lanes, and other traffic calming measures.[3] These initiatives are designed to make communities less auto-reliant, and to make business districts more accessible for pedestrians and those using active transportation modes.[4] By allowing people to walk to their destinations complete streets programs help reduce obesity[5] as well as individuals’ carbon footprints.[6] Additionally, the increased accessibility offered by complete streets almost always attracts new businesses.[7]

Unfortunately, as communities have attempted to revitalize their downtown districts through complete street programs, they have faced difficulties because their main streets are often under federal or state jurisdiction as federal or state highways.[8] The fact that these streets are under federal or state jurisdiction means that the designs of these rights-of-way are not under municipal control. Federal or state governments may work with municipalities to address the design of streets, but such collaboration can take a significant amount of time, and final design decisions remain with the federal or state governments (including officials or administrative bodies that have been designated to make such approvals).[9] The federal and state governments also have their own design requirements, which can actually diminish accessibility for pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit users.[10] These requirements include mandating wide traffic lanes, high-volume roads, large turning radii, wide road-side shoulders, and more.[11]

Despite delays in collaboration and imprudent design regulations, there are evolving federal and state programs that have allowed some municipalities to develop complete streets along federal or state rights-of-way.[12] Variances from federal highway design guidelines are becoming more common to accommodate the redevelopment needs of municipalities.[13] In considering requests for these exceptions, the federal government or a designated party[14] reviews the context of the environment in which its rights-of-way pass, under a policy approach known a “context-sensitive solutions.”[15] Meanwhile, 33 states have passed legislation establishing complete streets programs.[16] Despite the model legislation offered by Smart Growth America, these state-wide programs vary widely in what they require.[17]

The most successful state programs are those similar to Virginia’s, and which require accommodations for cyclists and pedestrians, as well as public transit users in the street design.[18] Such requirements have the effect of allowing municipalities to establish complete streets along state rights-of-way (although the question remains if such design considerations are appropriate in rural areas). Less successful state programs are similar to Washington’s in which the state considers the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, and also the context of their rights-of-way, but final decisions on road design remain with the state.[19] The least successful complete street program is Mississippi’s, which promotes consideration of complete street design principles by state decision makers, unless such principles violate pre-existing design standards. [20] This approach disbars many municipalities from requesting complete street designs. Meanwhile, in states such as South Dakota, that do not have a state-wide complete streets program, municipalities face significant obstacles in creating complete streets along state highways, as the states do not even have to review the context of their rights-of-way when making road design decisions.[21]

The above obstacles suggest that states look at how complete street programs are designed to make them more accommodating to communities seeking to enhance accessibility for their residents and visitors. If a state is weary of always requiring the accommodation of pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit users in its road design decisions, perhaps they should consider developing a more efficient system for variances from its existing design standards, mirroring the exceptions already allowed by the federal government.



[1]What are Complete Streets?, Smart Growth of America, https://smartgrowthamerica.org/program/national-complete-streets-coalition/what-are-complete-streets/ (last visited Oct. 6, 2017).


[3] See generally City of New Haven Complete Streets Design Manual (2010), https://smartgrowthamerica.org/app/legacy/documents/cs/policy/cs-ct-newhaven-manual.pdf.

[4]What are Complete Streets?, supra note 1.

[5] Samantha Chapman, Combatting Obesity One Step at a Time: Why Indian Should Implement Statewide Complete Streets Legislation, 12 Ind. Health L. Rev. 385, 409-12 (2015).

[6] Scott et al., Complete Streets in Delaware: A Guide for Local Governments 23 (2011), http://www.ipa.udel.edu/publications/CompleteStreetsGuide-web.pdf.

[7] Terry Moore and Philip Taylor, White Paper on the Economics of Complete Streets 20 (2013), https://sccrtc.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/2013-complete-streets-whitepaper.pdf.

[8]What to Do When Main Street is Also a State Highway?, StreetsBlog USA (Nov. 21, 2013), http://usa.streetsblog.org/2013/11/21/what-to-do-when-main-street-is-also-a-state-highway/.

[9]Anna Lothson, Oak Park Looks for New Ways to Influence Eisenhower Expansion Plans, Wednesday Journal (July 9, 2013), http://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/7-9-2013/Oak-Park-looks-for-new-ways-to-influence-Eisenhower-expansion-plans/; See generally, 23 C.F.R § 625 (2016).

[10] John Urgo et al., Moving Beyond Prevailing Street Design Standards: Assessing legal and Liability Barriers to More Efficient Street Design and Function, 6, 11-15 (2011), https://www.law.berkeley.edu/files/4.1_CREC_codes_and_standards.pdf.


[12]Guidance on NHS Design Standards and Design Exceptions, Federal Highway Administration, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/design/standards/qa.cfm (last visited Oct. 6, 2017); State-Level Complete Streets Policies, Smart Growth of America, https://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/app/legacy/documents/cs/policy/cs-state-policies.pdf (last visited Oct. 6, 2017).

[13]Guidance on NHS Design Standards and Design Exceptions, supra note 12.

[14] U.S. Dep’t of Transportation. Mitigation Strategies for Design Exceptions 21 (2007), https://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/geometric/pubs/mitigationstrategies/fhwa_sa_07011.pdf.

[15]Guidance on NHS Design Standards and Design Exceptions, supra note 12.

[16]Complete Streets Policies Nationwide, Smart Growth of America, https://smartgrowthamerica.org/program/national-complete-streets-coalition/policy-development/policy-atlas/ (last visited Oct. 6, 2017).

[17]Complete Streets: Technical Assistance, Smart Growth of America, https://smartgrowthamerica.org/work-with-us/workshop-types/complete-streets/ (last visited Oct. 6, 2017); State-Level Complete Streets Policies, supra note 12.

[18] Va. Dep’t of Transp., Policy for Integrating Bicycle and Pedestrian Accommodations 1 (2004), https://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/app/legacy/documents/cs/policy/cs-va-dotpolicy.pdf; State-Level Complete Streets Policies, supra note 12.

[19] Nicholss et al., Washington’s Complete Streets and Main Street Highway Program, 3 (2011), https://www.wsdot.wa.gov/research/reports/fullreports/780.1.pdf; State-Level Complete Streets Policies, supra note 12.

[20]Miss. Dep’t of Transp., Pedestrians and Bicycles on Highways and street Projects, https://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/app/legacy/documents/cs/policy/cs-ms-dotpolicy.pdf.

[21] Geoff Anderson et al., Dangerous by Design: South Dakota 11-13 (2014), https://smartgrowthamerica.org/app/uploads/2016/08/dangerous-by-design-2014-southdakota.pdf; State-Level Complete Streets Policies, supra note 12.

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