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.”

AASHTO Provides USDOT with Transportation Equity Data Insight

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials submitted a 32-page letter on July 22 to the U.S. Department of Transportation containing advice for the agency as to how it can best collect transportation equity data. That letter came in response to a USDOT “Request for Information” issued in May.

[Above photo by the Oregon DOT]

An important theme stressed by AASHTO in its letter is that – given the diversity of populations, norms, and expectations throughout the states and the country as a whole – “one size does not fit all.”

This includes “the many different federal agencies” that will be involved if USDOT adopts any “new or expanded transportation equity data collection program, tool, methodology development, or analytical methodology.”

AASHTO noted that, in general, to determine how well USDOT programs are affecting the safety and security of underserved people, “we first have to make sure we are collecting data in those areas that will help state departments of transportation make that determination.”

Armed with the correct data, AASHTO said state DOTs can then see what type of impact they are having.

“Organizations with limited resources can partner with state DOTs or other planning organizations to identify opportunities that support planning in underserved communities,” AASHTO added.

The group noted in its letter that there is an “existing body of knowledge and research” related to transportation accessibility that can be used to measure access to opportunities – such as jobs, schools, healthcare, etc. – and the impact that changes to the land use system and/or the transportation system has on access to opportunities.

The first resource is the “Transport Access Manual: A Guide for Measuring Connection Between People and Places,” which serves as a guide for understanding how to measure the performance of transport and land use configurations. The second resource is the “National Accessibility Evaluation Pooled-Fund Study,” led by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which is constructing a “measurement of accessibility” to jobs across the entire country.

“Transportation projects are undertaken to provide connectivity — the ability for people or things to physically travel — between locations, or to lower travel times where connectivity already exists,” AASHTO noted. “As long-term infrastructure investments, transportation systems are not built to satisfy individual trips at specific times, but rather to provide capacity that can be used to satisfy a huge variety of potential trips over the system’s lifetime. Accessibility metrics directly reflect this potential by combining network travel times with the locations and value of the many origins and destinations served by a multimodal transportation system.”

AASHTO also expressed in its letter support for establishing a task force with state DOT representation to “provide recommendations to address current and future needs of the transportation workforce, factors and barriers influencing and attracting individuals—including those from underserved communities.”

Transportation ‘Equity’ Focus of Proposed Highway Legislation

Legislation recently proposed by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works would seek to “reconnect and revitalize” areas harmed by the construction of the Interstate Highway System over the past six decades.

[Above photo by the Massachusetts DOT]

Dubbed the “Reconnecting Communities Act,” Sen. Carper’s bill would establish a grant program within the U.S. Department of Transportation to help communities “identify and remove or retrofit highway infrastructure that creates obstacles to mobility and opportunity.”

It builds off a “Community Connectivity” pilot program originally proposed two years ago by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. – a program subsequently passed unanimously by the EPW committee as part of the America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.)

In a statement, Sen. Carper said the Reconnecting Communities Act “would empower communities to reverse this unfortunate legacy by building spaces over and around our highways, revitalizing nearby areas as a result.”

His bill is also solely sponsored by Democrats including: Sen. Van Hollen; Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., the Senate’s majority leader; Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.; Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif.; Sen Chris Coons, D-Del.; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga.; and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

“The development of the Interstate Highway System connected our country in ways it hadn’t been previously, but it also upended neighborhoods and left communities divided, many times over economic and racial lines. In many communities of color, nearby highways continue to represent real barriers for getting around and getting ahead,” Sen. Carper pointed out.

“In cities across the country, communities of color have disproportionately seen their homes and businesses demolished for the construction of highways that in turn separate them from their neighbors and from economic opportunity. This is just one example of how government has disrupted and divided communities through the placement of infrastructure projects,” added. Sen. Padilla. “As we work to rebuild our economy and our infrastructure, we must do so equitably,” he said. “The Reconnecting Communities Act will play an important role in making sure that we don’t return to the status quo, but that we repair the harm and injustice these communities have faced.”

ETAP Podcast: Women in Transportation with Paula Hammond

In this episode of the ETAP Podcast, Paula Hammond – market leader-multimodal at consulting firm WSP USA and a former secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation – talks about the career challenges and opportunities for women in the transportation industry.

[Photo of Paula Hammond courtesy of WSP USA.]

Hammond – a civil engineer who spent 34 years at WSDOT, eventually becoming the state’s first woman secretary – said on the podcast she joined the transportation industry right out of college because “transportation touches people’s lives every single day. And while I never knew I would stay in this field as long as I have, every position I’ve held has been different and gratifying.”

Hammond said that America is now in a “transformational period” when it comes to transportation, which is providing a wider array of professional disciplines and job choices than ever before to women – everything from “planning and communicating positions to environmental and scientific fields.”

She added that state departments of transportation around the country now have CEOs and top lieutenants in place with “expectations” regarding the advancement of women in the transportation industry and are providing provide resources and mentorships to help further those advancement efforts.

“That is how I progressed in my career – I had great opportunities and mentoring along the way, supporting my progression through the agency,” she said. “I paid my dues and got my experience.” 

Hammond – who also serves as the chair for the WTS International board of directors – also helped lead a survey of anti-human trafficking efforts among state DOTs for the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, which is overseen by the Transportation Research Board. “We’ve found that state DOTs can supply data, knowledge, and expertise to law enforcement to help stop human trafficking,” she explained in a presentation two years ago. “So our next step, as we move from the broad survey to more detailed interviews and case studies with state DOTs active in this area, is to help others learn ‘best practices’ from them as well as how to fill any existing gaps.”

ETAP Podcast: DDOT’s Bennett Discusses Black History Month

Jeffrey Bennett, who leads the transit delivery division for the Office of Project Delivery within the District of Columbia Department of Transportation, discusses the role transportation plays in Black History Month as part of this episode of the Environmental Technical Assistance Program or ETAP Podcast.

[Photo courtesy of the District of Columbia Department of Transportation.]

“The railroads were the first mechanism for national transportation in the United States, but at the time they were built, African Americans were still slaves – moved on them as property,” explained Bennett, who also serves as the president of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials or COMTO.

“As time went along and Black Americans gained freedom, the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine came into being – forcing them to ride in different sections of trains and buses,” he explained on the podcast. “African Americans challenged that doctrine – most famously by Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders – and eventually they could sit where they wanted. But by then we were moving to an automotive-based system – and the highways built to carry those cars in many cases split white and black communities; another layer for keeping them separate.”

Today, Bennett said the focus on the transportation community is to bring more equity to the nation’s mobility networks.

“For example, 20 percent of Black households do not have access to a car, while 24 percent of public transit users are Black Americans,” he pointed out. “That shows that transit is key for folks getting to where they need to go.” Bennett also discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the nation’s transportation system as well as how the pandemic is influencing transportation equity discussions on the podcast. Access the ETAP podcast by clicking here.

ETAP Podcast: How Texas DOT Implements ‘Environmental Justice’

In the latest episode of the Environmental Technical Assistance Program or ETAP Podcast, Carlos Swonke – environmental affairs division director for the Texas Department of Transportation – explained how his agency implements environmental Justice or “EJ” strategies within its transportation project work.

[Photo courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation.]

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, “EJ” refers to the process by which both the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people – regardless of race, ethnicity, income, national origin, or educational level – is integrated into the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

Texas DOT’s Swonke noted during the 25-minute podcast that the National Environmental Protection Act or NEPA plays an important role in the EJ process.

“NEPA talks about addressing the natural and human environment,” he said. “More recently, in the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve looked harder at the social and economic impacts of transportation projects, especially on urban streets. NEPA is the umbrella law that puts us in the position of looking at those issues and conducting analysis to look at impacts on communities – especially minority and low-income populations.”

Swonke offered up an example of how EJ works within transportation project planning by highlighting the $7 billion North Highway Improvement Project, which seeks to reconfigure four interstates in and around the city of Houston.

“We’ve been working on this project for almost 10 years now and it will result in 160 single-family home relocations, 463 apartment unit relocations, 486 low income, and public housing relocations, and 344 businesses being displaced,” he said. “Along with public meetings to hear directly from affected communities, we engaged in technical analysis using 2010 census data and on-the-ground work to identify populations and neighborhoods considered to be EJ neighborhoods—information we just published in the final report on this project.” To listen to this podcast, click here.

AASHTO Hosting Environmental Justice Virtual Peer Exchange

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials is holding an Environmental Justice Virtual Peer Exchange on July 10. 

Hosted by the Center for Environmental Excellence at AASHTO, the two-hour virtual peer exchange will be broken up into two panel discussions – one focused on the connection between health and transportation and the other on Planning and Environment Linkages or PEL. The topics for the event were selected based on a recent survey of the AASHTO Environmental Justice Community of Practice.

The goal of this virtual peer exchange – which is being conducted in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration and the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations – is to provide an opportunity for transportation practitioners to learn about environmental justice, PEL, and health in transportation resources.

FHWA, state departments of transportation, and MPOs will share best practices and lessons learned related to projects and programs associated with health and transportation and PEL protocols.

The register for this exchange, click here.

Report Focuses on Integrating ‘Tribal Expertise’ into Transportation Projects

The Transportation Research Board recently issued a National Cooperative Highway Research Program report that explores how “unique tribal perspectives and expertise” could boost tribal engagement in a variety of surface transportation projects.

Additional resources for this report – entitled NCHRP Web-Only Document 281: Integrating Tribal Expertise into Processes to Identify, Evaluate, and Record Cultural Resources – include a Quick-Reference Guide and a PowerPoint Presentation.

This NCHRP report concluded that – from the tribal perspective — state agencies need to make sure to reach out to tribes to learn what their research questions and interests may be and bring these into the research design for a project, as part of thoughtful, collaborative research.

In addition, state agencies need to be willing to work with tribes and have productive conversations, including the ability to switch easily between scientific jargon and standard language to build understanding.

One tribe interviewed for this research report noted that sometimes there are differences in perspective – something both parties, tribes as well as state agencies, need to overcome.

“It is important to talk through any challenges,” the tribe noted in its response. “The bottom line is that sustained communication leads to effective consultation and in turn to collaboration.”

This NCHRP follows several initiatives at both the federal and state level to improve the integration of tribal needs within the planning process for surface transportation projects.

Photo courtesy Arizona DOT

For example, in October 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation proffered a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that aims to establish a tribal transportation self-governance program – the result of what the agency is calling a “successful three-year negotiated consensus rulemaking process” between representatives of North American Indian tribes, USDOT, and the Department of the Interior.

USDOT added that “among the many benefits” of the proposed self-governance program is streamlining transportation funding distribution to North American Indian tribes – creating a “less onerous” regulatory framework while promoting greater self-sufficiency among tribal governments.

State governments are engaged in similar efforts. In December 2019, the Georgia Department of Transportation signed a new consolatory agreement with the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Georgia State Historic Preservation Office, and the state’s 20 federally recognized Native American Indian Tribes.

That agreement establishes a framework for approving all types transportation projects throughout the state – from widening highways to the location of new bypasses – while protecting ancestral tribal lands.

Hearing Out the [Entire] Community to do it Justice

Imagine a massive highway project in a highly populated area that calls for the removal of several clusters of homes. Or the closing of a community gathering spot or other popular open space.

Such happenstances often require the overview and input of a state’s environmental justice program. They set policy and require that the road’s builders convene with the community to learn more about the impact that not only the finished project, but its construction, will have on the daily lives of local residents.

“In these cases, you have to initially look at what the state department of transportation is trying to achieve,” explained Rashaud Joseph, civil rights office director for the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities. “Where environmental justice programs come into play are with projects that have to do with the holding of public outreach meetings.”

The key in these circumstances is gaining input from the voices of in community, particularly from those who may seem less involved.

Courtesy Alaska DOT&PF

“I try to get across to [the road’s builders] that Alaska DOT&PF has to hold extensive public outreach, so it’s important to let people know where meetings are held and at what time,” he pointed out. “If you’re in a low-income area and have kids to take care of, the DOT in whichever state can’t have the meetings at 10 a.m. and at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday ― in other words, when everyone is at work. That shuts people out.”

Another part of an environmental justice analysis concerns what perhaps unforeseen impact a project has on the community.

“While construction of walkways is required by law, one part of that construction might cut off bus access on a given road that, in turn, requires riders to walk to another stop that’s harder to reach for low-income citizens or those with disabilities,” Joseph said.

That’s part of the reason these programs are tied-in nationally with most environmental departments. “We cross-reference their information,” he added.

Oklahoma is notable for its demographic of Native American citizens. To recognize this diversity, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation implemented procedures throughout the planning, design, and National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA process to ensure “that social impacts to communities and people are recognized early and continually throughout the transportation decision-making process,” said Leslie Novotny, the agency’s environmental project supervisor.

That process at the Oklahoma DOT, she added, includes early identification of minority and low-income populations during reconnaissance studies.

“Projects that affect the community more socially, economically and environmentally, such as a new alignment, will be accessed accordingly; and a plan of action best suited to serve the affected community will be created early on in the planning and design process,” noted Novotny.

That can include mail-out questionnaires, pop-up public involvement booths, and one-on-one meetings with community leaders.

She stressed that projects that may have a lesser impact on the community, such as a road or bridge closure, still require public outreach to ensure the Oklahoma DOT is not adversely affecting vulnerable populations.

The time of year of the projects can even come into play. “These situations are interesting since we only have winter and summer,” Alaska DOT&PF’s Joseph said. “We only have about five months to get our construction projects done, so we always have to see if we have any outlaying issues to examine.” “[The Anchorage] metro area isn’t so big that we have such pronounced issues. We have room out here, so generally, our citizens aren’t opposed to any transportation improvements,” he pointed out.