8 Ways to Improve State DOTs, According to Smart Growth Advocates

State transportation departments are often criticized for being too highway-centric. Here are some suggestions for changing that.
by | March 26, 2019 AT 4:00 AM
(AP/Don Ryan)

Few institutions can shape a community like a state transportation department. The agencies charged with building interstates are often deeply involved with day-to-day decisions that determine how fast cars can go, how long lights stay red and where pedestrians can cross the road.

Increasingly, though, those state departments of transportation are at the center of controversies over how they design roads and prioritize users of them. As urban areas have become more popular, so-called smart growth advocates who want walkable neighborhoods, vibrant shopping districts and safe passage for cyclists and pedestrians frequently criticize state DOTs -- which were originally called “highway departments” -- for allowing fast vehicle speeds to take precedence instead.

“In theory, DOTs are not only concerned with moving cars on highways -- they manage entire transportation systems, which include transit, biking and walking. But in practice, many state DOTs still operate strictly as highway departments,” Angie Schmitt, an author for Streetsblog, an influential site that promotes smart growth policies, wrote in 2017.

State DOTs have taken notice, and many are trying to address those concerns. But changing the institutional culture of agencies that were formed to build interstates and other highways has not always been easy.

In search of help, several state transportation departments in recent years have engaged with the group Smart Growth America. The organization has helped them understand why they've been slow to adapt to new demands and helped put in place new processes. The group summarized some of the lessons they learned from those experiences in a series of blog posts over the last few weeks.

Researchers found that many of the flaws in agency decisions start even before projects begin, specifically with how engineers define problems and how -- and when -- they engage with the public. They found that engineers are often rewarded for designing projects that allow free flow of vehicles but penalized for coming up with solutions that address other goals. Plus, they found that overall agency goals often don’t align with how funding decisions are made.

Beth Osborne, a former top administrator for the U.S. Department of Transportation who led the effort, says it was important for researchers to work with practitioners in the state agencies because the problems often can't be seen on the surface.

“If you read a lot of the statutes that govern our transportation program, they appear to be much more open, flexible and multimodal in their nature, in their practice,” she says. “They’re not.”

At the same time, she says, people in transportation departments feel as if they’re being pulled in different directions.

“They’ve been put in a bit of an impossible situation by their policymakers and their elected leaders,” she says. “We expect the system to move people through areas smoothly but also create lively, exciting destinations for you to be in. It is very hard to create those in the same place. If you want to get through it quickly, it’s probably not going to be a destination.”

One transportation secretary, Roger Millar of Washington state, has seen the issue from both the advocates’ and the agencies’ perspective. Before Millar joined the state, he worked for Smart Growth America evaluating state DOTs. There, he heard workers at state agencies tell him they felt lost when they transitioned from building interstates to maintaining and improving transportation networks.

"'We’re tired of saying no to good ideas because the good ideas don’t fit within our template,'" he remembers hearing.

“When you know it’s a good idea and you’re saying no, what manual are you holding, what standard are you following that is getting in the way of common sense?” Millar started asking. “If that standard comes up time and time again, maybe it’s time to change the standard.”

Shortly after Millar joined the Washington state DOT, the agency threw out its prescriptive design manual. Instead, project managers were given more discretion in how to address the problems they were trying to solve. That shift, Millar says, started to change the way the DOT worked with people outside the agency as well because it gave them more chances for input.

Here are some of the other insights that Osborne and Millar shared, in separate interviews, on how to improve DOTs and their responsiveness to community input:

 

1. Keep It Simple.

Osborne says many of the problems that state DOTs create come from “over-engineered solutions.” Bigger projects have larger impacts on the environment, local businesses and traffic safety. They may also lead to more traffic. If the only way to safely cross a large road is by car, people will use their vehicles rather than walk for short trips.

“We don’t always need quite so big of infrastructure to address the problem. We’re just not defining the problem the right way,” she says.

When working with DOTs, Osborne says engineers often stated their problem as the type of infrastructure they were trying to build, rather than the underlying conflict. They would think of the goal as expanding a roadway rather than addressing a bottleneck. When engineers approached the problem differently, they often found cheaper, less imposing ways to solve them.

In Tennessee, for example, engineers reimagined a long-stalled $58 million road-widening project and found they could achieve most of the same benefits for just $85,000 in safety improvements, such as curve warnings, school speed limit signs and stop signs.

 

2. There Are Drawbacks to 'On Time, Under Budget.'

If state transportation departments judge their employees solely on how fast and cheap projects get done, they risk getting projects that may not fit their communities well and, ironically, may be more expensive.

“If you want to be on time and on budget, the best thing you can do is take a prefab design and apply it thoughtlessly everywhere fast,” Osborne says. “Now, that’s clean and quick. It might not get you the results you want, but it’s fast. If you have to sit down and think about that community and what it needs, well, that's going to slow things down. And that’s harder.”

Internal DOT processes are often part of the reason tailored projects take so long, she adds. In many agencies, deviating from established design specifications requires extra reviews and approval processes.

 

3. You're Measuring Success Wrong.

Transportation departments often grade the success of a project, or the efficiency of a road, by using a measure called “level of service.” It essentially measures how freely traffic flows on the road.

But that’s not an appropriate measure for many places, Osborne says.

The grades assigned to roads don’t take into account whether congestion there lasts 30 seconds or three hours. Plus, the metric doesn’t include the experiences of any road users other than motorists. Besides, she adds, many of the most congested places under that measure also happen to be the centers of economic activity for an area.

 

4. Community Relations -- and Who Handles Them -- Matter.

Most projects require public input, but who facilitates that process and when it happens are important, Osborne says. Too often, state agencies only look for community feedback after they have already proposed a solution, which sets up an adversarial process.

Another problem state DOTs run into is that they’re called on to mediate disputes within the community, without a clear set of goals or priorities.

“That is not an engineer’s job,” Osborne says. “It’s unfair to let them do it. It’s a policymaker’s job.”

 

5. Don’t Ignore Land Use.

“In our business,” says Millar, “we’ve been told almost from the birth of this industry that land use isn’t our call because it’s a decision for local governments. But we absolutely have that role because the investments we make have profound land-use implications, and the land-use decisions that local governments make have profound impacts on the transportation system.”

In south Spokane, for example, he says the city approved subdivisions without extending the arterial road network to handle that increased traffic. While the new neighborhood is nice, there’s no good way for the residents to get to downtown Spokane.

“You go down to the bottom of the hill to a stop sign and you turn left across five lanes of limited-access highway [where traffic is] going 65 miles an hour,” he says.

Reconfiguring the highway to make it safe for the new traffic would cost $450 million, Millar says. But it would only cost the city $40 million to extend its arterial roads to the area.

 

6. No, Really, Don’t Ignore Land Use.

A major flashpoint between smart growth advocates and traffic engineers is arterial roads, which collect traffic from neighborhood streets and funnel them toward highways. The problem is that arterials have become destinations for shopping and apartments, and few accommodate those uses.

Osborne suggests arterials are so fraught because public officials aren't willing to make choices about how certain streets should be used.

“It’s asking the road to be futon,” she says. “A futon is neither a good sofa nor a good bed. It’s kind of in-between. And that’s what we’re asking our roads to be.”

Often, state engineers design a throughway, but then local officials approve shopping centers with driveways and new roads that slow down traffic.

“The transportation folks can’t solve that,” Osborne says. “We need to arm the DOT to say, 'Once you allow that kind of development, you’re done. We’re not here to fix this for you. You have undermined your mission with land use.'”

 

7. It’s Not Always the DOT’s Fault.

Millar says one of the things he noticed after joining the Washington state DOT was that the biggest resistance to new approaches didn’t come from within the agency, but from outside.

“The inertia is not so much from within the organization as from the folks who understand the old way of doing business and profit from it,” he says.

In his state, the legislature selects projects that are funded. At a recent hearing to unveil a transportation package, Millar estimates 68 of the 70 people in the room were lobbyists trying to get their pet projects included in the legislation. They weren’t just industry types, either. Many of them represented municipalities who had agreed to regional plans for transportation priorities, but they were still angling for special consideration.

“The misalignment of policy with investment is the frustrating thing,” he says. “When it gets old school, it’s the DOT’s fault, where the DOT at most contributed to it but, more likely, had it imposed on it.”

 

8. Change Has to Be Intentional.

Both Millar and Osborne say that state transportation agencies are adopting new approaches, but that doesn’t mean they come naturally.

“This kind of change is really hard. It is both insignificant and hard to change at the same time,” Osborne says. “[These things] don’t seem like they should be that big of a deal, but it takes a lot of energy to make bureaucratic change. When you have a limited time in office, a lot of times you just want to go build stuff. You don’t want to have a fight over bureaucratic change.”

 

This appears in the Infrastructure newsletter. Subscribe for free.