Inaugural 2023 Reconnecting Communities Summit

ReConnect Rondo, a local grassroots organization in St. Paul, MN, hosted the first “Reconnecting Communities Summit” on October 11-14, as part of a broader national effort to open a dialogue between transportation officials and community organizations seeking to leverage grants awarded through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods” pilot program.

[Above photo by AASHTO]

The AASHTO Center for Environmental Excellence – operated by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration – was thrilled to work with Reconnect Rondo and the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO) to sponsor the summit.

ReConnect Rondo is an organization with a mission to revitalize the Rondo community with a land bridge that reconnects the historic Rondo neighborhood that was divided by the construction of Interstate 94 during the post-World War II highway building boom.

Photo by AASHTO

ReConnect Rondo, COMTO, and the Center for Environmental Excellence hope to use the momentum of the summit as a springboard to the development of a “community of practice” for both recipients of the $185 million in grants issued via the first round of USDOT’s “Reconnecting” program as well as other organizations seeking future grant opportunities through it.

The summit featured a plenary session that included speeches from ReConnect Rondo Board Chair Marvin Roger Anderson, Congresswoman Betty McCollum (MN-4), and COMTO Minnesota Chapter President Tekia Jefferson. St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III also spoke at the meeting. The event’s diverse array of presentations and forums, along with question and answer panels, put a spotlight on equity in transportation and the importance of robust community engagement and outreach.

Concluding the summit were words from Keynote speaker Liz Ogbu, architect and author of numerous works tackling the challenges of cultural leadership and community building, as well as an address from U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

In addition to helping sponsor the summit, the Center for Environmental Excellence is featuring interviews with summit participants on its Environmental Technical Assistance Program or ETAP podcast as part of its four-part series on transportation equity.

ETAP Podcast Delves into ReConnect Rondo Effort

The first episode of a four-part Environmental Technical Assistance Program or ETAP podcast series focuses on building an equitable transportation system.

[Above photo by ReConnect Rondo]

The ETAP podcast – part of a technical service program for state departments of transportation provided by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials – explores a wide array of environmental topics that affect transportation and infrastructure programs.

During this episode, Keith Baker (above) – executive director of nonprofit community group ReConnect Rondo – talks about the vision driving his organization and the innovative approach it is taking to transform the neighborhood, businesses, and cultural ties on either side of Interstate 94 in St. Paul, which divided the historic Rondo neighborhood during the post-World War II highway building boom.

Those efforts have included a proposal to build a deck over part of the interstate and restore some of the amenities razed during road construction – and it received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation in March to do so.

The money will also help coordinate with the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s “ReThinking I-94” project, which seeks to make needed repairs to the highway’s aging infrastructure, while creating methods to reduce further harms caused by the main east-west artery through the Twin Cities.

The goal of ReConnect Rondo is to create a “land bridge” is to reconnect the community split in two by the freeway’s construction in the 1950s and 1960s, in the process destroying around 700 homes and 300 businesses, according to Baker.

The bridge would serve as a cap over the part of the road, between Chatsworth Street and Grotto Street, encompassing what used to be the entire Rondo neighborhood. Baker explains that the proposed “land bridge” could add approximately 500 new housing units, 1,000 residents, and 1,500 jobs, along with $4 million in annual city revenue.

To listen to the entire podcast episode, click here.

Video: Oregon DOT Tips for Culturally Modified Trees

A recent video produced by the Oregon Department of Transportation provides insights into the importance of “culturally modified trees” or CMTs and how states need to treat them, especially during post-wildfire recovery efforts.

[Above photo by the Oregon DOT]

For example, in September 2020, devastating wildfires burned nearly one million acres of forest across Oregon. During the removal of hazardous trees and debris following the fire, archeologists and tribal monitors recorded many archeological sites, including CMTs.

Several CMTs could not be avoided during tree removal so, as part of the mitigation effort for having to remove those CMTs, Oregon DOT created a training video with the assistance of Oregon tribes as well as other federal and state agencies.

That video – one of several produced by Oregon DOT in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Historical Research Associates, Inc., and consulting firm WSP USA – reinforces the importance of culturally-significant archeological sites and how transportation agencies and others should treat them.

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.