Bikers and walkers want share of Sioux Falls road money
As Upper Midwest cities grow they face choices of how to pay for roads. Advocates for active transportation say making streets safer rather than wider is a better investment in the long term. Yet, local leaders face a constant pressure to fill potholes and expand roads at all costs.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A bicycle advocacy group wants the city of Sioux Falls to promise to spend at least a minimum amount of money to encourage active transportation.
The Falls Area Bicyclists group is asking supporters to sign a letter to Mayor Paul TenHaken and the City Council to dedicate at least 1% of the road budget to specific projects such as protected bike lanes, maintaining the current markings on shared lanes and improving safety for pedestrians. The group is organizing to present their position — and, they hope, influence spending decisions — during the upcoming budget hearings.
It’s a big mountain to climb.
The reality of city government, from the mayor’s office to department heads to city councilors, is that traffic and the condition of roads is the No. 1 day-to-day issue. Advocates for walking, biking, skateboards or scooters as transportation say they need to be part of the conversation.
“The money goes to the people who show up,” said Matt Cook, communications director for Falls Area Bicyclists. “If drivers are making the most noise, then drivers get catered to. We’re like, ‘Look, if that’s what we need to do let’s make it happen.’”
Falls Area Bicyclists is planning a bike ride that will culminate at the City Council budget hearing at 6 p.m. Sept. 6 at Carnegie Town Hall.
It’s a struggle over how money is spent that plays out in cities across the Upper Midwest and the country in general as policy makers face public pressure for wider, smoother roads. It’s balancing convenience against long-term costs and sustainability. The decisions today have implications for decades of investment in maintenance, but also health and wellness as local advocates point to growing problems with obesity, substance abuse and even poverty.
How we get from here to there affects our personal budgets and bodies.
“It’s a very common struggle across the U.S.,” said Rachel Quednau, program director for Strong Towns, a Brainerd, Minnesota-based nonprofit that focuses on the economic benefits of safe, livable communities.
Streets that are walkable and rideable mean people are out and about in those neighborhoods, which means businesses are more likely to be successful, which increases property values and makes it a better place to live. It’s an economic question of return on investment, Quednau said. Active transportation is more cost-effective than building wide roads to suburban shopping centers.
“For some places the reckoning is going to come when they run out of money to pay for projects, when their roads are full of potholes,” she said.
That’s not lost on city leaders in Sioux Falls.
The city has long promoted wellness through Live Well Sioux Falls, in conjunction with the area’s health care providers and other local businesses. The latest Community Health Improvement Plan — a collaboration between a wide-range of organizations — was released in June. The group identified “Active Living” as the No. 1 priority. That includes evaluating how well the city is following its own Complete Streets Policy to promote safe biking and walking.
Progress has been made. The city is in the process of creating the Active Transportation Advisory Board, which consolidates the disparate efforts of advocacy groups to give them more influence and voice in city government.
What Falls Area Bicyclists wants is a more specific commitment of 1% street budget for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. The Capital Improvement Plan for 2023 calls for $67.5 million for streets, of which $300,000 is tagged for active transportation.
That’s approximately .4% of the total.
Getting to 1% means upping the total to about $670,000.
City councilor Greg Neitzert agrees that spending more money on streets isn’t a formula for long-term sustainability. The roads we build today, particularly collector streets in neighborhoods, are too wide. That just encourages speeding and commits future budgets to more money than necessary in maintenance.
But earmarking money for active transportation projects, as suggested by Falls Area Bicyclists, requires an education process that builds to a commitment from the mayor’s office, regardless of who holds the office, Neitzert said.
“I think it’s realistic and attainable but it’s going to be hard and it’s probably going to start small,” he said. “Policy makers are still very roads focused and nobody wants to be perceived as cutting funds for roads.”
Policymakers need to see the “why” it makes sense before the discussion can get to the “what” needs to be done, he said.
Sioux Falls implemented the Complete Streets plan in 2015. Since then, Neitzert said it’s become a box that needs to be checked, rather than an actual commitment to making it safer. That’s going to require a more unified approach across city government.
“If the mayor isn't on board it’s impossible to make sustained, lasting change,” he said. “If the mayor is not all in we are going to have little wins around the margins but it won’t be significant.”
Setting a percentage benchmark isn’t the best way to budget, said City Council Chairman Marshall Selberb.
“It just comes down to projects,” he said. “If you have a specific project, designate the funding to go that way. We are right in the middle of the budget season right now. Other departments don't percentage it. They say this is exactly what we’re spending the money on. You don’t want funds hanging out there.”
The 1% commitment would ensure funding in future years, said Cook, the Falls Area Bicyclists communications director. But in addition, the plans need to be targeted to specific projects to keep the pot from being raided by other priorities. For instance, the city has long planned to develop the 15th Street bike corridor, roughly from downtown to the Great Plains Zoo on Kiwanis Avenue. There have been small changes made but the project is well behind original goals, he said.
“It seems like there is money available but it goes into the general fund rather than focusing on the individual issues that many of the organizations in town have been pushing for,” Cook said. “A lot of that money gets eaten up by other projects or redirected to projects that go over budget.”