Howard County’s $2.4 billion spending plan for the coming fiscal year includes nearly $30 million for its roadways.

Roughly half of that amount is budgeted for the transportation department’s Complete Streets program, the county’s version of a modern movement to make roadways safer for pedestrians, cyclists and other non-motor-vehicle users of the pavement.

“There is an epidemic of pedestrian fatalities in this country,” said Calvin Gladney, president and CEO of Smart Growth America, a national organization that advocates for sustainable transportation, at a media briefing this week. Between 2010 and 2022, pedestrian deaths increased 75% across the country, Gladney said, approaching the grim numbers of the 1970s and ’80s after decades of more promising stats.

Last year, Smart Growth America pointed to Howard County as a nationwide Complete Streets leader, giving its policy a first-of-its-kind perfect score. The organization maintains a database of roughly 1,700 such policies across the United States, giving a grade to each one.

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Here’s why it got such a good score — and how it might affect the roads in your neighborhood:

What is a ‘Complete Street’?

Broadly speaking, it’s a road that is designed in a way that is safe and accessible for all of its users. Designs vary based on the needs of a given area, but they typically include one or more items from the Complete Streets menu — wide sidewalks and ramps that comply with the American Disabilities Act, highly visible intersections, bike lanes, bus stop shelters and plenty more.

Redesigning a road as a “complete street” typically means engineers want to calm car traffic — discouraging dangerous speeding and making interactions between cars, pedestrians and other vehicles, like bikes and scooters, safer.

Initiatives can be as small as modifying an intersection to make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street or as large as redesigning an entire stretch of road, like what Baltimore City’s Department of Transportation did with Remington’s 28th Street last Fall.

Complete Streets is a “shift in the mindset as to how we are thinking about transportation and how we are evaluating the success of our streets,” said Heidi Simon, director of Thriving Communities for Smart Growth America. It’s a modern-day response to the 20th century interstate boom that, in some cases, built highway-like roads through urban and residential areas.

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How did Howard County get a perfect score?

The policy’s perfect score meant outstanding marks for all 10 elements that Smart Growth looked at, including a clear overall vision, a specific implementation strategy and proactive land-use planning.

But it was the county’s focus on equity and underserved communities that jumped out to Simon.

Black pedestrians are twice as likely to be killed in a crash as white pedestrians, and the likelihood for Native American pedestrians is even higher, according to nationwide data compiled and examined by Smart Growth America. Their data analysis, which was done with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also indicates that a person’s likelihood of dying as a pedestrian falls as their annual household income rises.

It’s the transportation sector’s version of structural racism, Gladney said. Transportation advocates often argue that the most dangerously designed roads across the country typically go through communities of color or low-income neighborhoods, where residents are more likely to be pedestrians who do not own a car.

“We wanted to make sure that we focused on ensuring that particularly underserved communities had greater access to complete street infrastructure,” Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said in an interview. “And so that included people with disabilities, seniors, those who don’t even own a car,” as well as non-English speakers and families living in poverty, he said.

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Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (center) attends the Howard County AAPI Festival at Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods on May 11, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Ball’s team uses census and traffic data as part of prioritizing projects. Officials also have clear metrics for tracking progress that allow communities to hold them accountable, Simon said. Every six months, a Complete Streets report is submitted to the Howard County Council.

What does this mean for roads?

“Even a 100-point policy is only as good as the changes it implements,” Simon said.

Since 2019, Ball said, his team has built roughly 20 miles of bike lanes, 25 miles of new sidewalks and worked on more than 50 bus stop projects.

Road resurfacing late last year along Twin Rivers Road, Thunder Hill Road and other locations retrofitted parts of the street with bike lanes and put in new curb ramps. The county received a $4 million State Highway Administration grant in October to build a shared-use path along Dobbin Road, a project that’s been in the works for nearly a decade.

Ball is interested in improving access to public transit, too. The county earmarked $600,000 for four fully electric buses that will run on Montgomery County’s FLASH bus rapid transit system. Service along U.S. 29 will eventually connect Silver Spring and Columbia.

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But there’s still plenty of work to do. At the beginning of the academic year, some outraged Howard County parents reported incidents of young kids having to walk along roads without sidewalks to get to and from school after Howard County’s newest school bus contractor canceled routes, causing a transportation fiasco. This was also the first school year with an updated transportation policy, meaning fewer kids would qualify for a school bus.

How will strategies differ across the county?

It’s important for transportation officials to use a context-driven approach, Simon said. In other words, it doesn’t make sense for a highway to get a bike lane, just as neighborhood roads shouldn’t have high speed limits.

That means road treatments in the denser Columbia area will look different than in the rural western part of the County.

But there are strategies to make sprawling rural areas safer and more accessible, Simon noted. That could look like treating popular amenities — schools, parks, hiking trailheads or even the Howard County Fairgrounds — like hubs with dedicated pedestrian access and infrastructure that makes drivers slow down when people may be out and about.

The entrance to the Savage Mill Trail in Howard County on Feb. 7, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Community engagement is essential, too, Ball noted. The development of the county’s policy went through an extensive process of public meetings and comment, Ball said, and projects need the input of those living in the affected neighborhoods.

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Is $14 million for this sort of stuff a lot of money?

Yes and no. It’s a fraction of the county’s overall budget, and individual projects can run into the millions of dollars.

Federal grants can help boost or supplement the budget. The federal Safe Streets and Roads for All program, a funding stream born out of the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill, provided Howard County with $500,000 to help plan future safety improvements along the Route 1 corridor. One of the most generous of these awards went to Baltimore last year, when the Biden administration announced a nearly $10 million award for its Complete Streets initiative.

In the world of infrastructure, where new bridges and transit lines cost billions of dollars, the amount is modest. But it can go a long way for small improvements, like adding sidewalks or making crosswalks more visible.

Ball said that he’s put nearly $50 million into active transportation and Complete Streets since becoming county executive, which he calls a “record investment” far higher than the commitments from his predecessors.

“I’m excited about the future of progress to ensure that, you know, whether you’re taking mass transit, you’re walking, you’re biking, you’re rolling, you’re able to connect with your community,” Ball said.