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How State DOTs Can Help Revitalize a Town’s Main Street

In 2010 the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) published a report called The Road to Livability: How State Departments of Transportation are Using Road Investments to Improve Community Livability How do DOTs do this? Often by reducing lanes on Main Streets that are also State Highways, and constructing traffic-claming, pedestrian and shopper friendly community spaces. From the report:

A main street can be the pride of a small town’s existence. If a main street is shaped to fit the community’s small-town scale, its goals, its features, and its temperament, it can become a place for vibrant public life, for robust commerce and for recreational enjoyment. In countless communities across the country, Main Street also happens to be a state highway. Many states are working with their towns so that these streets play both roles: to move traffic and enhance the community.

Florida’s Department of Transportation partnered with the city of Lake Worth to revitalize its downtown. Two avenues were transformed with narrower lanes, parallel parking, decorative light fixtures, planters, paver-block sidewalks and crosswalks, benches, and trash containers.

They also installed corner “bumpouts” that shorten street crossings for pedestrians and serve as convenient stops for the “Lolly the Trolley” minibus.

The main street of Natchitoches, Louisiana, was rebuilt brick by brick by the state DOT, improving ride quality and drainage while bringing sidewalks up to date. The project required hand-removing and individually cleaning and reinstalling 300,000 bricks, while surfacing many archaelogical discoveries. The historic street, located in the oldest section of town, is vital to tourism and the economy of central Louisiana.

The report also describes how DOTs can help towns transform streets into neighborhood centers:

Streets are centers of community life, where local people come to shop, do errands, get together, and enjoy leisure time. Urban streets need to be geared to serve the business and residential needs of their communities: by accommodating traffic yet keeping it moving at a pace that gives pedestrians a sense of comfort and safety; by providing adequate parking; and by offering amenities that make people feel “at home.”

At the community’s request, Oregon’s governor asked his department of transportation to work with the city of Portland on an effort to rejuvenate the city’s Martin Luther King Boulevard. ODOT restored on-street parking on both sides, narrowed traffic lanes, and built a “mini-median” that provided space for plantings. AASHTO minimum guidelines were followed rather than the stricter state standards.

The improvements included widened sidewalks, curb extensions to shorten street crossings, bus shelters, and concrete crosswalks to alert drivers to pedestrian areas. Ornamental lighting, decorative paving, and street trees were included to add visual character to residential and commercial areas. As a result, new businesses have opened up and neighbors are returning to shop and stop for coffee. Property values are up on a street where banners now fly during neighborhood events and special holidays.

The Cap at Union Station is a $7.8 million retail development constructed as part of a bridge over I-670, reconnecting downtown Columbus, Ohio, with the burgeoning Short North arts and entertainment district. Opened in October 2004, the project was composed of three separate bridges—one for through-traffic across the highway, and one on either side for the retail structures. Now the Cap is home to 25,496 square feet of leasable space, with an urban streetscape, nine retail shops, and restaurants.

The District of Columbia Department of Transportation’s “Great Streets Initiative” focuses on improving and redefining major road corridors in the city to support local businesses while enhancing its communities with better pedestrian, bicycle, and transit options. Following five basic principles, the initiative will use streetscape and transportation improvements to change market perceptions of the corridors and stimulate economic activity; transform roadways and intersections into environmentally friendly and usable community open spaces; enhance major vehicular arterials with pedestrian and transit options; create a “sense of place” in each area; and reposition the street as a vital neighborhood asset.

One major initiative is the Anacostia Waterfront project, which will enhance the diverse waterfront area along one of the nation’s most historic but endangered rivers. Construction has already begun on a new 1.5-mile streetcar line in Anacostia, the first installment of a planned city-wide streetcar network.

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