By Tim Noordewier, PE, PTOE

The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), passed November of 2021, outlines a heavy investment in infrastructure in the United States, delivering more than $550 billion in new spending over the next five years, with $110 billion directed towards projects such as improvement of highways, bridges, tunnels, and roads. The approval has spurred further planning efforts to determine how the funding can be invested in transportation infrastructure and to consider safety improvements towards making the nation’s roadways safer for all communities and modes of travel.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit recently held a hearing “Addressing the Roadway Safety Crisis: Building Safer Roads for All”, which focused on solutions to improve the nation’s roadway infrastructure and reduce traffic deaths, especially in disenfranchised urban areas.  The hearing came on the heels of the release of the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA)’s 2021 traffic fatality data. The study estimated U.S. traffic deaths have climbed to 42,915, the highest number in 16 years. With a 10.5 percent increase since 2020, the United States is now experiencing a traffic safety crisis more severe than any other industrialized nation. According to a recent report by Smart Growth America, car-centric road design and insufficient roadway infrastructure disproportionately affects communities of color. The numbers indicate that Black pedestrians/cyclists were struck and killed by drivers at significantly higher rates than white, non-Hispanic Americans.

Subsequent efforts coming out of the IIJA seek to promote programs aimed at reimagining the nation’s urban transportation and traffic infrastructure by providing opportunities to rebuild safer and more equitable communities. Recent initiatives include:  

Safe Streets and Roadways for All (SS4A)

The Safe Streets and Roadways for All (SS4A), funded by IIJA, provides $1 billion in grant funding annually over the next five years to local government entities (not states) for planning and implementation of safety improvements aimed at achieving a “Vision Zero” goal. Vision Zero is a strategy to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious injuries by increasing safe and equitable mobility. 

Although aimed at local government, SS4A does create a new opportunity for states to provide technical assistance to municipal bodies on how to collaborate on best practices for planning, design, operation, and maintenance of public roads. By guiding ways to prioritize human safety  over vehicle speeds and throughput, states can foster a data-driven multimodal outlook to help tailor investments to communities in need of traffic calming and transportation alternatives. 

Reconnecting Communities Program 

Federal Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s $1 billion pilot program is aimed at helping reconnect cities and neighborhoods that have historically been racially divided by road projects. The program allows cities and states to apply for federal aid to rectify harm caused by roadways that were built to segregate lower-income, Black communities. 

Large divisive highways resulting from creation of the interstate highway system during the mid-20th century developed dangerous barriers to walking and biking that still exist today. The United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) has designed the Reconnecting Communities Program to be widely applicable and deal with all types of transportation infrastructure barriers. 

Updating the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD)

Did you know that one Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) document dictates how nearly every street in the United States is created? The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), often referred to as the “Traffic Engineer’s Bible” by traffic engineers, governs the engineering design of pavement markings, road signs, stop sign traffic control, and traffic signals on public streets. 

Historically, it emphasized design standards related solely to motor vehicle traffic, indicative of the priorities in place when the manual was last comprehensively rewritten in 1971. While the MUTCD has progressed substantially since the last comprehensive rewriting, including the most recent 2009 Edition and 2011 Supplement, the manual has lagged recent industry developments over the past 13 years, including numerous studies on the benefits and nuances of multimodal transportation design through “complete streets” initiatives at local levels, and technologies shown to enhance roadway safety such as the use of “Pedestrian-Actuated Rectangular Rapid-Flashing Beacons” (RRFB).  RRFB initially had FHWA interim approval, had it revoked, and then reinstated—causing much confusion across the industry. The lack of a recent MUTCD edition has forced engineers to review FHWA publications to sort through policy statements and interim approvals to verify the latest rules. 

The IIJA has mandated that USDOT, which oversees the FHWA, revise and adopt a new version of the MUTCD by May 2023. Proposed revisions to the manual are expected to make pedestrian and multimodal safety paramount to traffic design, provide a framework for reducing speed limits, remove red tape for traffic-calming tools, and more. This is welcome news for engineers and planners who are eager to have clarity on FHWA policies and enhanced guidance for engineering standards affecting pedestrian, bicycle, and transit facilities.  

Engineering’s Role

IIJA funding and program initiatives are only part of the solution. To truly transform our roadways for equitable safety, we as engineers must provide a holistic multimodal approach to transportation engineering. We are now at a pivotal time in history where we can move to orchestrate more efficient movement while providing the accessibility to transform all our communities for the better. 

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