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Safer streets highlight AARP legislative agenda

Finding ways to keep West Virginians safe when they are using public roadways is the number-one goal for the state chapter of the AARP.

Formerly known as the American Association for Retired Persons, the nonprofit represents roughly 300,000 people in West Virginia, said Gaylene Miller, state director. As more and more people live longer, Miller said improving community accessibility and "liveability" are crucial.

A key component to reaching that goal is moving forward with "complete streets" legislation.

"Older adults face the challenges of mobility and accessibility. . .When we look at the health and safety benefits of liveable communities, the adoption of the complete streets approach to transportation planning is essential," Miller said.

The idea for this legislation comes from the National Complete Streets Coalition. A street is "complete" when it is accessible for any type of user, from walkers and cyclists to drivers. It also calls on policymakers to ensure future projects take these factors into account.

Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, is in favor of such legislation and discussed the idea Tuesday. He introduced a bill (SB 159) at the start of session that calls on the Division of Highways to make sure safety, access and mobility are at the heart of any new projects.

The state allocates $1.55 in federal money per state resident to pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and that's the fourth lowest level in the country, Beach said. He was citing a recent study from Christiaan Abildso, a professor at West Virginia University, who researched the connection between accidents involving pedestrians and cost to the state.

Abildso studied all accidents involving pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles in West Virginia from 2000 to 2006. Discussing those findings with AARP members Tuesday, he said the costs of the accidents were severe: 206 people died and nearly 3,100 were inured. That amounted to "comprehensive costs" - including estimates for lost quality of life - at $1.19 billion dollars in 2005, Abildso said.

In his research summary, Abildso says some of the measures included with complete street plans - including raised medians, islands and paved shoulders and sidewalks - could reduce accidents.

"Implementing a complete streets policy may reduce crashes, injuries and resulting costs and improve public health by changing standard engineering practice in West Virginia," the summary states.

Beach also pointed to the chances for improved health. West Virginians are near the bottom nationally when it comes to rate of physical activity and near the top for costs related to obesity and physical inactivity, he said. Safer streets for bikes and walkers could mean more people take advantage of those activities, he said.

The complete streets bill is slated to go before the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which Beach chairs, on March 12.

AARP also wants to increase protections for older West Virginians who could fall victim to fraud or financial exploitation; protect promised benefits for retirees; fight against increases in utility rates; and support improving access to home and community-based services.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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