How Pennsylvania's Transportation Secretary Is Shifting the Infrastructure Conversation in Her State and Across the Country

Secretary Leslie Richards is trying to re-engineer the engineering process by making community engagement a top priority.
by | August 13, 2019 AT 7:00 AM
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards (PennDOT)

In just 4 1/2 years as the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Leslie Richards has seen a lot of changes in the transportation industry.

When she started her job, she was the only woman in a high-ranking position at PennDOT, and one of only four women who led a state DOT nationwide. Now she has numerous female colleagues within her agency and across the country.

Richards also had to convince her colleagues and her employees to think differently about solving transportation problems. For years, PennDOT, like many state transportation departments, was dominated by engineers, and those engineers focused on how to move vehicles on highways. But Richards, who has a master’s degree in regional planning, encouraged her agency’s workers to talk with local leaders before ever sketching out a new road configuration or bridge design. That’s the underlying idea behind her program, called PennDOT Connects, which the agency now uses in its planning processes. Richards has also promoted a more diverse workforce as a way to generate more creative solutions to transportation problems.

Nationally, Richards has pushed the transportation industry to better accommodate pedestrians and cyclists, and they have responded positively. She now chairs the newly formed Active Transportation Council of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

Although not well known outside transportation circles, AASHTO has an outsized influence on how transportation infrastructure in America looks and works. Most federal highway money is actually divvied up by the state transportation departments that form AASHTO’s membership. But the group also sets national standards for how roads are designed, how they’re built and what they’re made of.

Richards, among others, pushed for changes in the group’s structure that will give pedestrian and cyclist experts equal footing with highway experts in drafting those national design and safety standards.

We spoke with Richards in late July at Governing’s Summit on Infrastructure 2019 in Pittsburgh. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

 

PennDOT used to be an agency driven by engineers. But you’re a planner, and you’ve advocated a different approach to building projects. Do you see the same shift happening at other DOTs?

I do. It’s slow, but I do see a shift. I see more and more departments of transportation understanding that what they do impacts people’s quality of life and taking that responsibility seriously. Where before it may have just been an afterthought or an added benefit, I think now it’s part of all of our responsibilities.

At PennDOT, we’re doing it through [a program called] PennDOT Connects. We’re having those early conversations with our communities. We’re understanding what our asset means to them. We want them to see it as an investment. Every dollar we spend on a PennDOT transportation project is an investment in their community, and we want that to tie into their vision of the future.

Because we’re having those conversations early on, it’s allowing us to impact the design process. It’s allowing us to incorporate different elements. For instance, we’re able to help counties build trails alongside our asset, because now we know about it. We can build a retaining wall where we were planning just to build a safety wall, and, by building the retaining wall, the county then can come in and build the multiuse trail parallel to this bridge that we’re building years ahead of schedule.

We’re able to have conversations with communities and see how people walk around. We think we know how students get to school, because there are crosswalks and sidewalks, but students cut through parking lots, they cut through backyards, and they pop up in areas that you’re not always planning for them to be in. That’s really important for us to know, so that we can make sure those areas are well-lit and as safe as possible.

 

And that’s been changing nationwide, too?

There are certain DOTs that are really on the forefront of it. We’re all part of the conversation now, but before we really would have been the outliers. Even five years ago when I came here, it was kind of like, “Huh, that’s what you’re going to talk about?” And now it’s more: “Hey, Leslie, can you come here and talk to us about that?”

 

How is that having an impact on transportation policy?

For the very first time ever, the Council on Active Transportation at AASHTO met jointly with the Committee on Design. In my own mind, it was historic. The Council on Active Transportation is only two years old, but they’ve never had a voice that is equal to highway and streets. But now we do.

We will be balloting several manuals, including the Green Book – which is like the Bible of a lot of engineers – and including the safety manuals. So there will be an active transportation eye looking at all of these things, commenting and collaborating with the designers so everything is safer for all users, not just those in vehicles. It’s a big deal.

 

Was there a lot of resistance to those changes?

It’s funny. Everyone thought there would be. But no.

AASHTO went through the effort – and it was a huge effort – to restructure, because it was very highway-centric when I came on. They had already started the restructuring by that time, though, to make AASHTO more multimodal. I said, “Nothing will show AASHTO means it more than to give equal authority to highways-and-streets and active-transportation on these manuals.” And they did. Once we made the case and explained why we wanted it, everyone was in agreement and there’s been a lot of support for it.

 

Does the change in approach help PennDOT with its relationships with counties and municipalities? It seems that PennDOT, for historical reasons, owns a lot of what are essentially local roads.

Absolutely. While I knew that PennDOT Connects would be beneficial in many ways, I did not fully understand how our relationships with our local communities and our local stakeholders would be strengthened.

We’re seeing a lot of improvement in how we’re received by our communities. Even when we’ve had our assets damaged by flooding, [local communities] would be defensive or antagonistic. Now they know how hard we work to maintain these assets. They know who to call to coordinate safety. They know how to call the maintenance crews to see what’s being done. The flow of information is better than ever.

We’re seeing a lot of improvement in our utility coordination, too. Because we’re having these conversations earlier and having everybody around the table earlier, we’re seeing what improvements they have planned for their water system or their electric system, where their pipes are being dug out, and what their public works departments are planning. We can see how we can work alongside them when we get the construction phase, and how we can shorten those time frames and projects.

I was a township supervisor a while ago. One of the most frustrating things was that we would do a local improvement project, and then six months later the water company would come and dig it up. Then, six months after that, the electric company would come and dig it up. Six months after that, PennDOT would come in and like replace something.

That coordination, while it sounds simple, is something that’s very hard. It’s very hard to get everybody around at the same table.

 

You mentioned the changing culture at AASHTO and in the transportation industry. It seems in recent years that we are seeing more women leading state DOTs. Why do you think we’re seeing those changes finally happening?

Since I’ve been on board, it’s gone anywhere from four of us [women directors of state DOTs] to a high of 14. It’s in flux. I can tell you, it feels very different when there’s only four or five of us, versus when there are 14 of us.

We all talk about diversity and inclusion, but there is a true tie to your bottom line when you have diverse perspectives around major decisions. I think we’re seeing that. I think governors who appoint DOT directors and agency heads are seeing that. Transportation commissions that appoint agency leaders are seeing that. Everyone wants to improve their bottom line.

Everybody wants the greatest amount of options in front of them when they make a major decision. The way to make that happen is to make sure that you don’t have all engineers who were in school 40 years ago who think the same way and who have the same life experiences. You need all different experiences to get those decisions. It’s just good business.

The energy level and the breadth of a discussion is changed when you get closer to like gender parity in the room. That's just one way you get it, though. You get it with younger people. People in their 30s move around an urban area very differently than I move around an urban area. With the aging of our workforce, you need those younger perspectives. That’s important too. So are different disciplines: engineering, planning, IT and finance. You need people who grew up in rural areas and people from cities. We try to bring as much diversity as we can. The one thing people see the most is the gender balance, but there’s other diversity around those tables too, and we really try to pay attention to it.

 

What were the obstacles that prevented the industry from being more diverse earlier?

I think it follows elected office. I'm in Pennsylvania. We’ve never had a female governor, never had a female auditor general, treasurer or U.S. senator. When I came here, we had no women representing us in D.C. There wasn’t a female congressperson representing Pennsylvania. When you have all men deciding who the next cabinet members are going to be, they tend to rely on their networks.

It’s something you have to decide to do. At PennDOT, for the first time ever, our senior team is gender-balanced. When I came on board, there was one woman, and it was me. I was the only one on the eighth floor in an executive office [out of 15 executives].

I’m biased, because I’m the one leading the agency right now, but I think a lot of the things that we’ve been able to do and a lot of the awards we’re winning nationally – on innovation, on promoting diversity and inclusion, on advancing technology, even real technical awards and design awards – I think it is a direct relation to the fact that we have more diverse perspectives now making decisions.

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