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Complete Streets at top of AARP's WV legislative agenda

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The AARP is the biggest lobbying group in the country, so it's no surprise volunteers spend countless hours at the West Virginia State Capitol pushing legislation that matters to the 50-plus crowd.

Some of those volunteers met with members of the West Virginia Legislature Feb. 26 to talk about the organization's agenda for the 2013 session. Gaylene Miller, state director, said AAPR actively engages its members to find out what issues matter most to them. Among the biggest issue is mobility and independence. The AARP's Complete Streets initiative is one way to accomplish that goal.

"Livable communities provide safety and security for individuals who wish to remain in their homes and communities as they age," said Randy Myers, president of AARP West Virginia. "Complete Streets policy represents a mindset that encourages common sense planning for new infrastructure development, where state transportation planners would consider all transportation users as they relate to the unique transportation needs of growing communities in the Mountain State."

Christiaan Abildso, PEIA Weight Management Research and Evaluation coordinator, helped collect data related to injuries and fatalities caused by incomplete street infrastructure. West Virginia has the second highest rate of inactivity in the nation, he said, and the lack of sidewalks and bicycle lanes prevent that statistic from changing.

"What we did was review seven years of data provided by the Division of Highways that come from police reports, collected around the state, to better understand the burden of crashes between motor vehicles and pedestrians and motor vehicles and cyclist," he said. "Complete Streets, as we hear today, is legislation used in many states as a mean to institutionalize and improve pedestrian and cyclist design in areas where the need exists, and usually that need is established using crash data such as what we reviewed."

Abildso took the data and determined the cost borne to taxpayers as a result of the crashes. The state has the sixth-highest rate of physical inactivity and obesity-related cost, totaling about $280 per taxpayer. Meanwhile, the state invests approximately $1.55 per person of federal transportation money on pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, ranking fourth lowest nationally.

"We know that walking is good for us, and now we know more people want to walk than drive," Abildso said.

WVU's findings highlighted the health and economic impact on state residents, the health care sector and economy. Over the seven-year period, 206 pedestrians and cyclists were killed, and 3,091 were injured. The crash rates were highest in the more populated areas of Cabell, Wood, Kanawha, Ohio, Monongalia and Berkeley counties. The total comprehensive costs resulting from these crashes was $1.4 billion, or $200 million per year. Of that, roughly $80 million was medical-related cost, emergency services and lost productivity.

"When we look at Complete Streets legislation, passing it would likely reduce crashes and injuries and save the state and its residents money simply by changing standard engineering practices and the lens by which we look at all projects," Abildso said. "I think we can all work together and we should work together to reduce the gap of what is invested -- $1.55 per capita and the losses incurred by citizens."

Sen. Bob Beech, D-Monongalia, chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. He supports Complete Streets, saying it adds value to the state's infrastructure system.

"The perception of unsafe walking and cycling conditions may be preventing West Virginians from becoming more active," Beech said.

Complete Streets legislation is expected to be taken up by the Senate Transportation Committee March 12. From there, it will go to Government Organization for consideration. Once adopted, the Legislature will put in place the ability for the Division of Highways to establish a statewide Complete Streets policy, Beech said.

"As I have heard many say in my office, Complete Streets policy is a mindset, not a mandate," he said.

Also on the AARP's agenda:

Helping older West Virginians stay in their own homes: AARP supports new and existing opportunities to improve access to home and community-based services and to protect and expand the Medicaid Aged and Disabled Waiver program, state respite funding for the Family Alzheimer's In-Home Respite program and the Lighthouse program.

Protecting older West Virginians against fraud and financial exploitation: The AARP works with the West Virginia Financial Task Force to support state laws that strengthen protections against fraud and unfair practices and equip consumers with tools to help make informed decisions and to protect themselves.

Enhancing Retirement Security: AARP supports the West Virginia Association of Retired School Employees in efforts to protect retirees from the reduction or elimination of promised benefits, preserve accessed to defined benefit plans and cost of living adjustments and limit taxation of retirement income.

Fighting for utility consumers: Defeating or mitigating rate increases that could hurt older West Virginians. According to a news release, AAPR opposes legislation that would require advanced payments for power plants and works to ensure providers of gas, electricity, land line, wireless and broadband Internet offer dependable services.