New designation could complicate future development, work on local roads
Largely unnoticed in last year’s federal transportation bill was a significant change to what the federal government considers “principal arterials” — and now it seems some heavily traveled local thoroughfares previously subject mostly to local control are now under the thumb of federal regulators.
As of Oct. 1, 2012, roads like 12th Street, Patterson Road, North Avenue and Horizon Drive were added to the National Highway System, according to the Federal Highway Administration, and while nothing on the surface has changed, the implications of the new listing are murky, at best.
Long stretches of these roads don’t currently meet federal code for things like commercial signage, traffic signals, lane width, bicycle accommodations, sidewalks, traffic flow and management, among other details. The federal “Green Book” of design standards is more than a thousand pages thick.
“Some of the concern is, everything that’s out there (on the National Highway System) would have to meet a standard for what the federal government says is the proper standard,” Colorado Department of Transportation Regional Director Dave Eller said at a meeting late last year with local transit officials.
Asked whether these sections of new NHS roads will have to meet federal code requirements, Eller said, “We haven’t gotten that clear answer from the federal government just yet.”
That was in November, and it seems there is still no good answer to the question from federal officials.
Doug Hecox, a spokesman with the Federal Highway Administration in Washington, D.C., was noncommittal when asked if these new NHS roads face a mandate to meet federal code requirements.
“You can say that and you are probably right,” Hecox said, about whether something needs to change on these newly classified roads.
“I don’t want to give the wrong impression, that something has to happen tomorrow. I don’t know about the urgency,” he said.
What is clear is that federal design requirements on these key roads do apply to “new and reconstruction projects on the NHS,” according to the latest guidance from the highway administration.
That, on the surface, seems to have implications for local efforts under way to make major improvements to some key area roadways now listed in the federal highway network.
One example is Horizon Drive, where a special tax district since 2004 has been working on a plan to widen sidewalks, improve landscaping and add crosswalks and possibly bike lanes, along with other safety and traffic improvements.
According to the letter of the law, any of those new improvements will now need sign-off by federal regulators.
Clark Atkinson, president of the Horizon Drive Business Improvement District board of directors and president of Shaw Construction, said he had no idea the stretch of Horizon Drive targeted for improvements is now listed on the federal system. “It wasn’t on our radar,” he said.
Trent Prall, engineering manager with the city of Grand Junction — who is involved in the Horizon Drive District plan, as well as with similar improvement efforts for North Avenue, which also now finds itself on the NHS — predicted the new classification would not “have a huge impact.”
“There will definitely be some increased analysis, and possibly some environmental mitigation that we need to do. But those things are coming anyway,” Prall said in reference to “a whole slew of regulations coming our way” from the Environmental Protection Agency, including regarding storm water treatment.
“Are we happy about it? Well, we’re in western Colorado, where we would rather not have all of that federal control coming down as deep as it is,” Prall said. “But is it going to keep us from doing what we want to do? ... I doubt it.”
Ken Simms, transportation planner with Mesa County’s Regional Transportation Planning Office, told officials in November he believed if the city wanted to pursue an improvement project on 12th Street, from Grand to North avenues, for example, officials would be compelled to follow all the federal highway design standards.
“I bet it will cost more,” Simms said. “It’s not going to cost less.”
From the FHWA’s perspective, the expansion is a positive development, in that roads now classified on the NHS qualify for federal funding.
“I’m guessing at congressional intent, but I believe that’s what the law was there to do — to make more roads eligible for more funding so that more improvements ... could be possible,” Hecox said.
That argument didn’t resonate at the November meeting. In addition to the obvious new dilution of the project pool seeking federal dollars, Simms wondered where a local project — like the 12th Street example he used — would rank on a federal project list.
“It would probably rank pretty low, considering some of the conditions that we are dealing with,” Simms told transit officials. “It’s not much of an incentive,” he added, which was met with chuckles by people at the meeting.
Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca summed up the situation from his perspective at the November meeting.
“There appears to be some evidence that the restrictions far outweigh the benefits,” he said. “I can’t see adding anything, and I could see good reason for arguing to not include any additional segments — and perhaps even an argument to remove previously identified segments.”
Whether local communities can opt out or have segments removed from the NHS — at least so far — is probably the one area where there is clarity.
According to Prall, officials recently sought removal of North Avenue, among other local roads, from the federal system.
“It turns out that isn’t going to happen. Anything that was on the system is for sure going to stay on the system,” Prall said, based on his understanding.
It’s possible there could be changes after CDOT completes an ongoing review, which will be submitted to the FHWA at the end of March.
“It is likely that some roadways will be downgraded from principal arterials, thus effectively removed from the NHS system — but this will not be confirmed until recommendations are reviewed/approved by the FHWA,” CDOT spokeswoman Nancy Shanks said in an email.
With the passage of last year’s federal transportation bill — which carries the title of MAP-21, or Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century — the National Highway System expanded from 167,000 miles to about 220,000 miles. Colorado specifically added 1,266 new miles, according to CDOT.
Both Colorado senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, voted for MAP-21. U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., voted yes on the measure as well.