Policy Brief: One Size Fits All Federal Policy Endangers Omaha Children and Families

Policy Brief: One Size Fits All Federal Policy Endangers Omaha Children and Families

Omaha city officials thought they were doing citizens a favor when they accepted a federal grant to modernize and upgrade traffic signals across the city of Omaha to improve safety standards for citizens.  Instead, this federal grant had strings attached and has altered the city’s priorities when it comes to traffic and safety.  Because the federal grant would only pay for traffic signals that meet federal standards, several crosswalks were identified to be removed, including two near an elementary school.  Many residents felt the removal would put students and their families in danger as they cross busy roads on their way to and from school.

Photo by Matt Dixon, Omaha World-Herald

The crosswalks are situated in Dundee, a historic neighborhood in Midtown Omaha, which is home to Dundee Elementary School.  This small and friendly area of the city is walkable, and many families, bicyclists, and children use the crosswalks on a daily basis on their way to and from school.  Unfortunately, a study conducted by the city found the number of people using the crosswalks did not meet required federal standards and the crosswalks were directed to be removed.  This discrepancy between the community and policymakers occurred due to the federal standards requiring a greater number of pedestrians using the crossing during peak hours for vehicular traffic, while residents argue that most pedestrians use the signals around school hours.

The removal of these crosswalks is because the city of Omaha has accepted a 10-year, $35 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration that will be used to update approximately 1,000 outdated traffic signals across the city.  The grant will account for 80 percent of the total project cost, with the city paying for the remainder.

In order for the federal grant to be used, each signal that is to be updated must be evaluated or studied by engineers to see if it meets federal standards.  These standards are known as the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.  It is a document issued by the Federal Highway Administration of the United States Department of Transportation to specify standards by which traffic signs, road surface markings, and signals are designed, installed, and used.

News came of the crosswalk signals to be removed just weeks before the first day of the 2017-18 school year.  Students and parents alike held a protest at the intersections of 51st and Farnam Street, and 52nd and Chicago Street to tell city officials they wanted to keep their crosswalk signals.    Luckily, due to the proximity of the two crosswalks to Dundee Elementary, the proposed removal will be subject to additional study and review by the city.  Four other crosswalk signals identified by the city’s study will be removed.

It should be noted that the federal grant accepted by the city of Omaha does not prohibit the city from updating and keeping the crosswalks with city funds.  The city can use Omaha tax dollars to upgrade the crosswalks to the current federal safety standards, regardless of the number of people who use them.  The cost to upgrade the crosswalks would not be a large sum for a city that has a budget around $900 million each year.

The current crosswalks fit the safety needs of the community and its residents, but by relying on a federal grant to maintain this infrastructure, local policymakers found themselves unable to meet those needs.  It is reasonable to assume certain aspects of the Omaha community infrastructure will have to be maintained and paid for using city tax dollars.  A one size fits all federal policy does not work for every community, and that is made clear with the opposition in the Dundee area.

This is one reason why the city of Omaha and the state of Nebraska need more transparency when it comes to accepting federal grants.  Acquiring information on the budget and program impact of federal grants can be difficult for members of the public, since it often involves a grueling public records request.  Even policymakers may find it difficult to access this kind of information in a convenient and organized format.  In the technology age we live in, it is rational for all levels of government to offer more transparency on the impact of federal grants they accept.

This past year in the Nebraska Unicameral, a bill (LB611) was introduced to inventory the state’s federal funds to give more transparency for citizens and lawmakers.  Other states including Indiana, Idaho, Mississippi, and Utah have all already incorporated this transparency feature into state government.  If the city of Omaha were to implement a similar policy, citizens could have easier access to information about how federal grants impact local decision-making.  They would be able to see what is going on and may be able to communicate their concerns to city leaders before a protest is needed.

City officials will always try to use federal grants to offset the use of local tax dollars.  However, accepting these funds sometimes come at a cost – lack of flexibility for local needs.  Citizens expect their local tax dollars to be used for basic government functions, including infrastructure and safety. The public and policymakers need better tools to decide when federal grants are advantageous, or when relying on local resources will provide the community with more of the services they desire.

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