Guest blogger Bill Ostrem: Rice County leaves its sidewalk and path policy unchanged

County Road 43
County Road 43

Last August the Rice County Board of Commissioners made a change in their transportation policy that goes against the interests of people who walk, bike, or use wheelchairs in our community. It’s a change that’s detrimental to many of the most vulnerable users of our transportation system, including children, seniors, the poor, and the handicapped. (continued)

I’m talking about a change in a fairly arcane and complex policy: the Cost Participation Policy for Cooperative Roadway Construction Projects, which governs the share that the county pays on joint road projects with cities and townships. The policy applies to projects that are part of the county Capital Improvement Plan.

Why should we care about some complex policy? Because it governs the funding for county road projects – which we might also call the public right-of-way – in many of our communities, and because it shapes the way we think about transportation.

The changes made last summer involved the provisions for sidewalks and “bituminous bike paths,” or shared-use paths, along county roads in cities and towns. Previously, the county paid a share of the costs for replacement sidewalks and new and replacement paths – specifically, 55 percent of the cost for municipalities over 5,000 in population, and 100 percent of the cost for those under 5,000. With the change, the county moved these facilities into the “not eligible” category for county funding. In effect, they cut funding of these facilities in their Capital Improvement Plan by 100 percent. The commissioners voted 4-1 for this change last August, with the only exception being Galen Malecha of Northfield at that time.As a pedestrian/bike advocate and chair of the Northfield Area Task Force on Nonmotorized Transportation, I was immediately concerned about the new policy. It seemed to me to be a step backwards. While more and more governments are passing “complete streets” policies that require them to consider all users of the public right-of-way in their road projects, my own county had adopted an anti-complete streets policy. (Governments with complete streets policies make sidewalks, paths, bike lanes, and other facilities – many of them important for safety purposes – a high priority. See my earlier post on complete streets; see also the Complete the Streets coalition web site.)

I was further irked by the fact that rather than putting sidewalks and paths into the “potential” category for funding – a category that includes storm sewers and traffic signals (and that would not have required any spending) – the county instead put them into the “not eligible” category, which includes items such as “sanitary sewer modification” and “new landscaping.”

It seemed to me that important elements of our transportation system had just been cut out of a whole level of government funding. So I began working with others to change the policy, either to restore sidewalk and path funding to its previous level or move it to the “potential” funding category, the latter being a compromise that represented a victory largely in principle only.

Our Task Force on Nonmotorized Transportation passed a resolution asking the County Board to change its policy, as did the city councils of Northfield and Faribault, the two largest cities in the county by far. Their populations make up about 41,000 out of the county’s 63,000 people, nearly two thirds of the total.

Once a new County Board was seated in January – with Jeff Docken replacing the departing Jim Brown in my own district – we asked the Board to change its policy. The policy was discussed at three different Board meetings. At the first two meetings, those speaking in favor of changing the policy outnumbered those in favor of keeping it by about 8:1 and 5:1. City council members, city staff, and citizens from Northfield and Faribault spoke out for the needs of people who walk, bike, and use wheelchairs in our communities – people such as children, the elderly, the poor, and the disabled.

After these first two meetings I mailed the commissioners a simple proposal to move sidewalks and paths to the “potential” category – sometimes called the “case-by-case” funding option. The commissioners’ Transportation Committee agreed to have the Board vote on two options: accepting this revision or keeping the policy unchanged.

A third County Board meeting that addressed the policy on Tuesday, May 5. It was quite different from the first two. About seven people from county townships – rural parts of the county – spoke at the microphone to say that they didn’t want the county funding sidewalks and paths. Some of them said that the current budget problems did not allow the county to spend money on such things. One speaker said that if the county wanted to pay for sidewalks and paths, it should do so by issuing fines to people walking and biking on the road.

I was the only person on the other side of the issue who spoke at this meeting, and after that last comment I expect I sounded angry as I read my statement (see below). Later in the meeting the Board discussed the issue, and Commissioners Gillen (who represents part of Northfield) and Plaisance again voiced their strong disapproval of changing the current policy. Gillen said he didn’t support funding the sidewalk and path that were part of an earlier project on Woodley Street in Northfield. Both men expressed anxiety about shortfalls the county faces in funding its roads given the current budget; they feared having to revert paved roads to gravel roads. Plaisance said it was “ridiculous” to fund sidewalks and paths at the present time with transportation funds.

Malecha and Docken pointed out that changing to the “case-by-case” funding option didn’t require spending any money on sidewalks and paths if the Board felt there wasn’t enough money to do so.

When the votes were tallied, Commissioner Bauer joined Gillen and Plaisance in opposing a change. Commissioner Docken joined Malecha in voting for a revised policy. The status quo prevailed by a single vote. Needless to say, I was disappointed by the outcome. (See the Northfield News article about the vote.)

The entire experience got me thinking about the tension between rural and urban interests in our county and at other levels of government. My impression of Rice County government is that rural residents feel more of a connection to it than do city residents, and they influence it out of proportion to their numbers. I’ve been struck by how many Northfield residents do not know who their county commissioner is. The residents of Rice County’s cities need to be informed and keep a close eye on county government to make sure it is meeting our needs. They should consider running for the County Board if necessary.

Rural residents should also remember that our far-flung road system is financed largely by the majority of people who live in urban areas; we urban residents subsidize rural roads because there are so many more of us and we pay the majority of taxes. We pay for the majority of goods and services in our economy.

This cost participation policy change has me wondering how efficient our huge system of paved roads actually is. Can we afford to keep every road paved if it means our urban roads have to be less safe as a result? At the same time, I believe my welfare is bound up with the welfare of those living in rural areas, and they have their own transportation needs.

Surely we need rural and urban people to recognize each other’s needs. However, that rural resident who voiced disdain for anyone not in a car did not speak for many people in my community.

I don’t plan on spending more time on this issue until our budget situation improves, but I do ask that Rice County residents keep it in mind for the future.

In conclusion, here is what I said to the commissioners during my two-minute presentation at the microphone on May 5:

Good morning. I’m Bill Ostrem, a resident of Northfield and chair of the Northfield Area Task Force on Nonmotorized Transportation, which was created by the Northfield city council two years ago.

I thank you for reconsidering this policy and I ask you to put sidewalks and shared-use paths into the “potential county participation” category.  Right now you’re handcuffed by the current policy, which doesn’t allow you to address the full mobility and safety needs of county residents through your capital improvement program.  Making this change gives you the advantage of having a flexible policy that would allow you to address any significant safety issues that you may become aware of. Furthermore, it still gives you the option to say no to adding any costs that you want to avoid. It has all the advantages and none of the disadvantages of the current policy. It also puts you into alignment with the county transportation plan, which includes sections on nonmotorized transportation.

Children and youth, the elderly, disabled people, and others without drivers’ licenses or autos have mobility needs that involve using the public right of way, our roads. Others who want safe options for walking and biking include parents with small children in strollers or on bikes. If they want to walk and bike in our communities they can’t cut through private property, and our urban roads need to reflect that fact with sidewalks and paths. Even rural residents may some day need to retire in our towns and cities and will want safe mobility options.

We have significant problems in the Northfield area alone on county roads that lack these facilities: Woodley Street east, County Road 1, County Road 43 [see picture above]. A flexible policy would allow you to control costs the best way you see fit while still addressing the nonmotorized transportation needs that are a part of the county transportation plan.

3 thoughts on “Guest blogger Bill Ostrem: Rice County leaves its sidewalk and path policy unchanged”

  1. Bill,

    I really appreciate all of your effort on this issue. It is unfortunate that the county commissioners brought such a closed minded attitude to the table. Galen Malecha seems to really care about this and kudos to him for revisiting the issue. Your “potential” proposal is so reasonable it is amazing to read they voted it down. To think they will actually refuse to consider all projects going forward is unbelievable.

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