Session Examines State DOT Efforts to Advance Equity

Several state department of transportation executives recently shared insights into how their agencies are advancing equity through infrastructure projects during a knowledge session at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials annual meeting in San Diego.

[Above photo left to right: Diana Mendes, HNTB; Shoshana Lew, Colorado DOT; Paul Ajegba, Michigan DOT; Bill Panos, North Dakota DOT; and Marie Therese Dominguez, New York State DOT.]

“I think we as leaders have to strive for a diverse workforce and get diverse opinions. When we have true representation in the room, we have true inclusive decision-making,” explained Paul Ajegba, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation. “In the past with our transportation projects, we would make decisions and then come back and say ‘was that the right decision?’ We had those questions because did not have the right representation at the beginning.”

Bill Panos, director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, emphasized that “advancing equity” is not just an urban-focused philosophy. It also applies to transportation work in rural communities as well.

“In rural states, you can drive for four hours and not see another human being,” he said. “Rural states like mine have small populations and large landmasses, which makes for isolated communities. A major snowstorm might lock those communities down for up to a week: you cannot get a car or truck out; you cannot get food or fuel in. That happens to many of them two or three times per year.”

Panos stressed that in primarily rural and small states, a strong federal formula program is the key to sustaining equity. “For rural states like mine, we don’t have a lot of transportation funding options; we don’t have a large population or businesses to tax. That’s why for us 50 percent or more of our transportation dollars come from the federal government. That’s why formula funding is so important – it sustains us and helps maintain the national supply chains that run through our state.”

Shoshana Lew, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, explained that forging closer connections to the communities impacted by transportation projects is another key to advancing equity.

“One of the areas we’ve particularly focused on is the project planning process,” she said. “Not only do we make ourselves more approachable and accessible, but we also use bilingual translators to better connect with the communities impacted by our projects. That helps us generate very real and meaningful dialog.”

Colorado DOT is also trying to “integrate” infrastructure projects better within the communities those structures serve. For example, for the recently completed I-70 highway project in Denver, the agency refurbished homes located near the road to mitigate noise and air pollution. Colorado DOT also helped redesign an elementary school located near the roadway, built parks for the children of families living near the highway, and regularly conducted job fairs during construction to provide employment opportunities to the residents of the communities near the roadway.

“That’s connecting them to economic benefits and long-term employment,” Lew noted. “We have taken this experience [with the I-70 project] – a hard one with ups and downs – and are using it to help us promote equity with other projects.”

Marie Therese Dominguez, the commissioner of the New York State Department of Transportation, said making sure everyone in the community benefits from a transportation project also means working more closely with other state and local agencies.

It means working with housing authorities so they can reconfigure post-project space for homes, along with education departments to determine how long-term construction could affect schools.

“It’s about bringing all the state and local agencies together to form a long-term plan – to factor in environmental, housing, and workforce impacts so we get a much more regional and comprehensive look at how a transportation project affects the communities it touches,” she said. “It is all about lifting everyone up because transportation really expands opportunity for communities of kinds.”

Active Transportation Council Building “Research Roadmap”

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Council on Active Transportation is planning to implement a “research roadmap” finalized in July to “prioritize and categorize” state DOT pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure investments in the near future.

[Council Chair Toks Omishakin, director of the California Department of Transportation, is second from left in the above photo with Vice-Chair Melissa Batula, deputy secretary for highway administration for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, at far left.]

That roadmap – developed via the National Cooperative Highway Research Program or NCHRP – seeks to focus on six specific areas:

  • Applying and integrating active transportation data into planning and operations
  • Using minimum accommodations versus alternative approaches to increase active transportation
  • Determining context-driven optimal spacing between marked crosswalks
  • Addressing barriers to integrating active transportation throughout planning and engineering practice
  • Racial and economic disparities in pedestrian and bicyclist safety
  • Speed management solutions and strategies to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety on arterial roadways

“As you know, the Active Transportation Council was created as part of the AASHTO restructuring a few years ago, born from the institutional desire to make active transportation more prominent within the association,” explained Omishakin during a panel discussion during AASHTO’s annual meeting in San Diego.

“The Active Transportation Council has also successfully collaborated with various AASHTO committees in 2021,” he added. “For example, earlier this year, we worked with the Committee on Safety to hold a peer exchange on active transportation safety, with the discussion including data collection, asset management, plus project planning and delivery.”

Omishakin emphasized that, in terms of active transportation external engagement, AASHTO entered into a memorandum of understanding or MOU in February with the Adventure Cycling Association in terms of expanding their joint efforts to expand the U.S. Bicycle Route System or USBRS. That helped spur the designation of 18 new bicycle routes in five states in August, adding 2,903 miles to the USBRS – representing the largest addition to the USBRS to date in terms of both the number of designations and their total mileage.

“We have identified a lot of ways to help one another and work together,” Omishakin stressed during the council’s session at the AASHTO annual meeting. “We will keep both the internal and external conversations and coordination going.”

AASHTO to Examine Election Impact on Transportation at Annual Meeting

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Annual Meeting – held via a virtual format November 9-13 due to the COVID-19 pandemic – will focus on the potential ways the results of the 2020 national elections could affect the nation’s transportation policy agenda.

As part of AASHTO’s annual meeting, the organization’s Transportation Policy Forum will delve into the Congressional policy outlook for surface transportation funding reauthorization in 2021 and conduct two interactive polling exercises – the first on the pending COVID-19 relief package, including AASHTO’s $37 billion backstop request before Congress, and second on the development of the 2021 AASHTO legislative action agenda.

Several knowledge and spotlight sessions focused on a variety of transportation topics will take place over the course of AASHTO’s annual meeting.

For example, on Thursday, November 12, AECOM will host a resilient infrastructure knowledge session focused on how state DOTs can continue to maintain a connected transportation system in the face of hazards and threats such as hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, derechos, as well as cyber and other potential attacks.

Also on November 12, Bentley Systems will host a spotlight session on how safety culture is evolving with state departments of transportation at different levels, such as in communications with the public and legislators or other external partners; through the project development process; and by pilot projects to transform traffic safety culture among road users.

Registration for AASHTO’s virtual annual meeting is now open and can be accessed by clicking here.