In Carson City, street changes mark shifting priorities

This article was originally published by Mobility Lab.

Small cities face big obstacles to expanding transportation options

transponation smEditor’s note: This is part four of our summer Transpo(nation) series, as Andrew bicycles across the U.S. to report on transportation demand issues. The first three parts featured at San Francisco, Davis, and Boulder.

After climbing the Sierra Nevada and surviving Carson Pass, I got to revel in a 30-mile downhill ride before having to seriously pedal again. At some point, without realizing it, I crossed from California into Nevada and meandered along the edges of the Sierra foothills toward Carson City.

Getting into the Nevada capital, though, was a bit jarring. Small towns along the way had converted their street shoulders into bike lanes, even given already low car traffic and speeds. But the route into Carson City itself followed U.S. route 395 – a fast, multi-lane highway with narrow sidewalks and no bike lanes. It stays busy and intimidating even through the downtown area, which makes the whole city appear unpleasant to travel through using just about any mode.

But that is changing.

Carson Street, the stretch of route 395 through the city’s downtown, was undergoing an extensive construction project that is hard to miss. My instincts told me it was more than just utility work, and probably an important redesign. Could it be a road diet? I was thrilled to find out that it is.

Thankfully, I had the opportunity to speak with Patrick Pittenger, Carson City’s transportation manager, to learn more about the changing streetscape and his vision for making the city a more walkable place.

Complete streets inbound

The Downtown Corridor Improvement is the city’s first major complete streets project since it adopted such a policy in 2014, which was supported by an eighth-of-a-percent increase in sales tax. And it’s far from the last, says Pittenger.

“Complete streets” is a nationwide effort to redesign streets so that they accommodate all users: pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and drivers. As it is now, Carson Street favors drivers over the safety and comfort of others, discouraging other transportation options and reinforcing a car-dominant mentality.

This project has been a long time coming for Pittenger and Carson City, and represents a significant step towards creating a more multimodal area. The road diet is focused around Carson Street, an important location not only because the street needs a renovation, but because it will play an exemplary role in the future of rebuilding others.

Carson Street is the downtown’s main thoroughfare, carrying about 17,000 vehicles per day along two lanes in each direction and with very narrow sidewalks. The Downtown Corridor Improvement will narrow traffic to one 10-foot traffic lane in each direction and a center turning lane, plus five-foot bike lanes and widened sidewalks. When it’s complete, pedestrians will have a much shorter width to cross, which will foster safety and walkability. The changes are projected to cut traffic crashes by a third.

Carson City, Capital+Area+1

As with many street redesigns, Pittenger noted the need to compromise with the project’s opponents: the city added two parking spaces per block, but left flexibility to convert spaces to parklets, drop-off zones, or other facilities that may become necessary in the future.

Updating Carson Street is necessary for the immediate streetscape and underground utilities, but it is also symbolic of the future of street projects in Carson City. The project is scheduled to be completed before Nevada Day (October 28) and will therefore showcase the new road design to the entire community when it hosts the day’s central parade.

The main challenges Pittenger and his team face are not political, but cultural and monetary, and speak to a major hurdle that small cities face in developing their transportation infrastructure. It’s not necessarily that leaders don’t want to make their cities more walkable – it’s that they face some pretty high barriers to doing so, especially in a city where 93 percent of residents drive to work.

Piecing it together

Funding is short for small cities, particularly in Nevada, with few options for revenue streams. Taxes are low and the city distributes money from a general fund, making it tough to earmark dollars for transportation projects.

Pittenger points out that the federal government prioritizes Metropolitan Planning Organizations above 200,000 people, with a small pot remaining for the smaller areas (the immediate Carson City area has slightly more than 55,000 people). Most of 2009’s federal stimulus money went straight to larger MPOs, leaving little for smaller ones to fight over. Carson City only ended up with $700,000 to work with in the end.

Municipalities like Carson City need to creatively (and legally, as Pittenger emphasizes) to put together various grants to fund infrastructure improvements and other projects. The increased sales tax helps tremendously, but if voters don’t increase transportation funding in a November ballot measure, it will still be a tough game to fund infrastructure maintenance, let alone more projects like the downtown corridor.

Hearts and minds

Pittenger, who has been a Carson City public servant for 10 years, has been working towards this throughout his tenure. When he first arrived, about 40,000 vehicles traveled Carson Street every day. With the goal of turning this into a complete street, Pittenger set out to “retake ownership of the road.” Since then, he and the city have had to position themselves to make these projects viable and convince people it’s the right thing to do.

It takes time for a city to position itself to be able to take back its roads and redesign them as complete streets. In addition to residents’ streets deteriorating in front of their houses, many view complete-streets renovations as multimillion dollar attempts to constrict traffic while ignoring other significant maintenance issues. The city faces the challenge of convincing constituents of the many intangible benefits of projects like road diets and the fact that they won’t make traffic worse.

What works in Pittenger’s favor is that the city “has had and continues to have a majority of elected officials who are friendly” to these infrastructure developments. With agreement across city leadership, it’s more a matter of convincing constituents of the necessity of these improvements and finding the funds to do so.

Pittenger points out that he and his team are “proud of what [they] do, but wish [they] could do more.” They have the foresight to work towards positive changes for their streets, starting with a prominent road diet that is as necessary as it is symbolic. But it’s an arduous process to move things in the right direction.

Based on my conversation with Pittenger, it looks promising that programs offering better transportation options will gain traction in small cities as they have begun to in larger ones, setting a path for even more communities to focus on walkability and multimodality.

Photos, from top: Carson Street in downtown Carson City, in its four-lane design in 2013 (Patrick Nouhailler, Flickr, Creative Commons). A rendering of how Carson Street should appear post-road diet (CarsonProud.com).

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