Dwindling federal road safety funds spent on crosswalk timers

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(The Center Square) — With a federal deadline looming that requires Pennsylvania to reduce road fatalities, the commonwealth plans to spend millions to install pedestrian countdown timers at crosswalks.

The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021 created a Vulnerable Road User rule, which required states to spend a portion of their federal funds on projects that would better protect people walking, biking, or rolling.

As a result, Pennsylvania is obligated under the rule for fiscal years 2023 and 2024 to spend $19.3 million and $19.8 million, respectively, for VRU-related projects.

Rather than larger projects, countdown timers were appealing as a low-cost and quick solution.

“We really only had a few months to get something together, some kind of strategy,” Jason Hershock, manager of PennDOT’s Safety Engineering & Risk Management Unit, said during a meeting of the agency’s Pedalcycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee in September. “We couldn’t take on projects where it was a massive street-scaping.”

Those larger projects run the risk of delays due to a laundry list of pitfalls: utility conflicts, right-of-way issues, environmental permits, and legal agreements.

PennDOT needed “that fast mechanism,” he said, that would keep them compliant with federal law while making roads safer.

Projects for fiscal year 2023, which ends September 30, have already been funded. For 2024, $13.4 million of the $19.8 million has already been committed, with the agency needing to fund another $6 million of projects to meet federal requirements.

The time crunch could be a boon for quick safety improvements, even without large projects. Hershock cited research showing that countdown signals could reduce crashes by almost 9%.

The advisory committee was supportive of the countdown timer expansion.

“The number of bicyclists and pedestrians killed has been slowly going up … the trendline has been upward for the past 10 years,” PPAC Chair Sarah Stuart, said. “This effort is going to be helpful in starting to drive it down.”

Though quick, the timers might not be the most cost-efficient over time. Hershock argued that “systemic” changes have greater impacts than “spot” changes.

“It costs us about $25-$26 million per spot-specific location to reduce one fatal or serious injury,” Hershock said. “Where a systemic project costs us about $4 million … Just doing spot-specific locations, we’re not gonna hit really good numbers there.”

Finding a balance between the two projects, he said, was essential.

Though Pennsylvania’s traffic fatalities hit 1,059 in 2019 — the lowest since 1928 — fatalities crept up afterward before falling slightly to 1,179 in 2022. By the end of June 2023, 11 bicyclists had been killed on Pennsylvania roads (compared to 15 in all of 2022) and 75 pedestrians (compared to 184 in June 2022).

PennDOT, in accordance with federal law, is also working on a Vulnerable Road User Safety Assessment that must be completed by November, as The Center Square previously reported.

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