Monday, April 15, 2013

What does an expanded National Highway System mean for urban arterials?

ODOT has an interactive map of the changes
MAP-21, the most recent federal transportation re-authorization bill, included a somewhat odd provision to expand the National Highway System (NHS). Roadways on the NHS are eligible for federal-aid highway matching funds, and it seems odd to expand their number in a time of uncertain revenues. As of October 1, 2012, though, all principal arterials that connect to the existing NHS became part of the system. Many of these streets in urban areas have little resemblance to any sort of highway (Portlanders, think NW Broadway or the E Burnside/Couch couplet), and have been redesigned to serve the needs of bike, pedestrian, and transit users as well as drivers. A major concern is whether and how federal design guidelines might hinder development of people-friendly streets.

While the federal funding potential is interesting, Jonathan Maus ( spotted the potential for design clashes:
The implications for Portland (and other cities) could be significant, because it would mean several of our local streets — including ones that are crucial for bicycling — would suddenly be required to conform with design standards laid out by the Federal Highway Administration, instead of the more flexible local and state standards used today.
Less than 3 weeks before the new policy took effect, Maus reported that then head of Portland's Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), Tom Miller, was unaware of the change. The state transportation department (ODOT) was said to be "scrambling" to understand the new provision. States were apparently given less than one month to apply for classification changes that would prevent specific stretches of road from being added to the NHS.

In a fact sheet released shortly after the changeover, ODOT stated that the new NHS status means any new projects will have to conform to the federally sanctioned AASHTO Green Book governing federal-aid highways instead of more urban, multimodal-oriented alternatives. The FHWA, for their part, only make it clear that the law as written does require adherence to federal design standards for any "new and reconstruction projects on the NHS." The requirement seems to apply even if a project does not receive federal funding; however, ODOT's fact sheet notes that they will have final say on the majority of design exceptions for the newly added routes. Only on projects requiring "full federal oversight" would design exceptions automatically go to the feds for review. However, ODOT apparently cannot contradict its own Highway Design Manual to grant exceptions. If PBOT wanted to maintain or build new lanes to its preferred 10-foot width on an NHS roadway, for example, the agency would have to go directly to the FHWA for an exception.

Overall, urban arterials on the NHS require more state involvement in local project planning, and in some cases more federal involvement as well. Even if a state DOT goes out of its way to accommodate cities' preferred designs, the policy change still adds the cost of a design exception review. And, what happens to cities that want progressive designs for their NHS arterials but lack such willing state partners?

Additional links: ODOT's NHS Expansion Page, additional BikePortland post


  1. So is the only good thing that comes from this is that more roadways are eligible for federal funding? It seems like this will create a larger funding requirement for projects to go through design exceptions. More expensive projects, more potential projects but the same or less amount of funding...Plus penalties for not meeting requirements. States have until 2014 to develop a asset management plan and until 2018 to meet interstate pavement condition requirements.

  2. The fact sheet mentions that reconstruction must meet standards, a question i have is does repaving constitute reconstruction. If so when a road that is part of the NHS is going to need repaving then if the lanes are ten feet wide, there will have to be an expansion? It seems that the states exist because we recognize that our country is huge and has people with different values. forcing everyone to conform to the same road standards makes everyone look at transportation the same way when we might value different ways of getting around.

  3. Kate: Good points. There seems to be an equity argument at the state level. It could be perceived as unfair that one state's arterial is eligible for federal match but not another's. The federal government would also like to standardize the NHS to some extent. It really does seem like a silly thing to do in a time of diminishing highway budgets.

    Daniel: Strangely, the 10' width is actually an ODOT design requirement. The city would have to go directly to FHWA for an exception (presumably with ODOT's full support!). Hopefully, this new policy will be cleaned up before it's seriously enforced.

  4. I followed up with Travis Brouwer (ODOT Federal Affairs Advisor) at the OATS conference last week on the how the expanded NHS would impact design standards. FHWA and ODOT formed a NHS Expansion Working Group and they posted their report online last week. It includes details on design standards and design exceptions especially regarding lane width and vertical clearance.

    They also released a design matrix that shows what standards are to be used based on the funding and roadway classification.


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