State DOT CEOs Talk Transportation Equity at EPW Hearing

Toks Omishakin, director of the California Department of Transportation, and William Panos, director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, highlighted the ways state departments of transportation are incorporating equity into their infrastructure programs during a hearing on Capitol Hill on May 11.

Both virtually joined the hearing – held by the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works – to share their perspectives on how to improve transportation equity for disadvantaged communities, “no matter their race, socioeconomic status, identity, where they live, or how they travel,” noted Omishakin.

Toks Omishakin, Caltrans Director

“Overall, minority and under-served communities experience fewer benefits and take on a greater share of negative impacts associated with our transportation systems,” he explained in his written testimony. “Because of this, transportation equity is not just a transportation issue. To improve equity across the board, we must address transportation equity. To do that, we need to listen to communities affected by inequity and implement change accordingly by altering the ways we evaluate and make investments in transportation.”

As a result, Omishakin said Caltrans is taking several strategic steps to improve equity, including:

  • Expanding public transportation to meet the needs of a diverse and aging population, including quality transit service in rural communities.
  • Developing and investing in passenger rail and transit projects that support inclusive job development opportunities in the trades.
  • Growing the “clean transportation sector” to address the disproportionate effects of pollution on minority and under-served communities.
  • Investing in safer multimodal and active transportation facilities on community highways, trails, and streets.
  • Enhancing maintenance and operational investments on all highways and prioritize under-served and rural communities, including tribal governments.

“We will achieve equity when everyone has access to what they need to thrive,” he stressed.

North Dakota DOT’s Panos added rural communities to that “underserved” list in his written testimony – and stressed that traditional formula funding would provide the means to address their needs.

William Panos, North Dakota DOT Director. Photo from North Dakota DOT.

“In rural America, usually the interest of a disadvantaged community, sometimes a community that has been under stress for a long time, is to be better connected beyond the community,” he said. “Strong formula funding will enhance the ability of states to address these connectivity needs. Regional issues should also be considered in order to optimize investment. Certain investments relative to reconnecting a community should be preceded by giving consideration to the potential impact on other communities or on the transportation system as a whole.”

More generally, Panos noted, federal highway formula dollars are “critical” to the success of state transportation programs serving the public, which includes disadvantaged communities.

“They [formula funds] are deployed widely in all of the states. They are used to improve roads, bridges, bike paths, and sidewalks. They pay for vital safety investments, including guardrails and rumble strips. They can also be transferred to transit projects,” he explained. “Strong formula funding and flexible program eligibilities enable a state to address those circumstances and help people.”

Webinar: State DOTs Detail Current Sustainability Efforts

The American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials Center for Environmental Excellence is hosting a webinar on May 26 to illustrate the current sustainability practices state departments of transportation are deploying across the country.

[Photo by Minnesota DOT]

That one-hour webinar – held from 2:30 pm to 3:30 pm ET – highlights how state DOTs can benefit from prioritizing sustainability across a wide variety of practices and activities. Yet a new national survey by AASHTO’s Sustainability Working Group found that only 16 states have directives from their governors, state legislatures, or other bodies to address sustainability issues.

To kick off the webinar, Madeline Schmitt – program planner at Iowa DOT – will provide a brief overview of the sustainability working group’s activities to date, while Phillip Burgoyne-Allen – AASHTO’s associate program manager for environment and active transportation – offers a brief overview of the survey results.

Several state DOT managers from Arizona, Minnesota, and Washington will then share additional insights and lessons learned from their sustainability experiences to date:

  • Arizona DOT: Steve Olmsted, NEPA Assignment Manager
  • Minnesota DOT: Jeff Meek, Sustainability Coordinator
  • Washington State Ferries: Kevin Bartoy, environmental stewardship & sustainability program manager

To register for this webinar, click here.

Video: Every Day is Earth Day for State DOTs

Founded 51 years ago, Earth Day is now a global celebration that is raising public awareness and support for the protection of the environment. One of the objectives of this annual worldwide campaign is to get everyone to play a role – no matter what they do or where they live and work.

A recent video produced by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials highlights the many ways that the Minnesota Department of Transportation and other state DOTs are leading in the areas of sustainability and environmental stewardship.

The video – entitled “Every Day is Earth Day at Minnesota DOT” – features an interview with the agency’s commissioner, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who details the Minnesota DOT’s successful efforts to shrink its carbon footprint, advance renewable energy consumption, plus safeguard and beautify the environment around the construction sites managed by the agency.

Minnesota DOT Adopting Broad Array of Sustainability Initiatives

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is adopting a slate of recommendations proposed by the Sustainable Transportation Advisory Council or STAC in order to create “measurable strategies” to help the state transition to a low-carbon transportation system.

[Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of transportation.]

Those recommendations include:

  • Developing a clean fuels policy.
  • Supporting electric vehicle rebates.
  • Increasing investment in charging infrastructure.
  • Setting a preliminary 20 percent goal of reducing vehicle miles traveled or VMT statewide by 2050.
  • Prioritizing transit and high-occupancy vehicles on agency-owned right of way.
  • Continuing to prioritize other solutions before considering highway expansion

“We are deeply grateful to the members of the STAC for their thorough recommendations as we work collaboratively to reduce carbon pollution from the transportation sector,” noted Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Minnesota DOT’s commissioner, in a statement.

Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota DOT.

“Our climate is changing, and we all share in the responsibility of working harder to achieve Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Act emission reduction goals. The recommendations of the STAC will be critical to our success,” she added.

The Minnesota DOT created STAC following its 2019 report Pathways to Decarbonizing Transportation, which identified several actions, recommendations, and opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from surface transportation.

“The MnDOT is leading with action by convening and listening to a diverse group of community leaders on the STAC,” noted Chris Clark, president of Xcel Energy and STAC’s co-chair.

“But make no mistake, the MnDOT can’t do this work alone,” he explained, “Decreasing greenhouse gas emissions will require significant public-private and interagency partnerships as well as coordination with municipal and county agencies. Our STAC recommendations are one important step, and we appreciate that the MnDOT is moving forward with many of them.”

Concurrently, the Accessibility Observatory at the University of Minnesota is moving into the second phase of a multi-year national pooled-fund study to measure access to destinations, such as jobs, education, and health care as a way to guide transportation investments and land-use planning.

“Measuring access to destinations gives us the clearest possible view of how well our transportation systems connect travelers with important destinations,” explained Andrew Owen, the Observatory’s director, in a statement.

“It can also reveal how transportation and land use planning work together to set the stage for future growth and sustainability,” he added. “Comprehensive accessibility metrics can help planners make wise, cost-effective transportation system investments that will best serve public needs as they evolve through an increasingly uncertain future.”

Arizona DOT Installing New LED Highway Lights to Save Energy, Money

The Arizona Department of Transportation recently started upgrading the lighting system inside the Interstate 10 Deck Park Tunnel north of downtown Phoenix – a project that should save both energy and money.

[Photo courtesy of the Arizona Department of Transportation.]

The Deck Park Tunnel – which originally opened in August 1990 – currently uses an “old style” high-pressure sodium lighting system. The Arizona DOT is now replacing that old lighting system with 3,200 new light-emitting diode or LED fixtures; a $1.4 million project that should take several months to complete. The agency said in a statement that the new LED fixtures – expected to last well over twice as long as their sodium predecessors – should result in energy savings worth more than $175,000 per year; savings that, over time, will help pay for the cost of installing the new LED system.

Minnesota DOT Releases Fourth Annual Sustainability Report

The Minnesota Department of Transportation recently released its fourth annual Sustainability Report; a 26-page document based on 2019 data that tracks the agency’s progress towards achieving a number of sustainability and climate goals.

[Above photo courtesy of MnDOT.]

Some of the sustainability achievements cited by the agency include: Reducing energy consumption per square foot by 17 percent between 2008 and 2019; issuing a request for proposal for community solar garden subscriptions that will save the Minnesota DOT more than $1.5 million and account for almost 25 percent of total agency electricity use; increasing the number of electric vehicles within the agency’s fleet from four to 29; exceeding the department’s goal in the 2018-2019 winter season for reducing salt usage.

Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
Photo courtesy of MnDOT.

[Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the Minnesota DOT commissioner and chair of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Committee on the Environment and Sustainability, recently explained Environmental Technical Assistance Program or ETAP podcast that Minnesota looks for the “triple bottom line” when evaluating sustainability: how sustainability efforts affect the health of people, how it impacts the environment, and how it impacts the economy.]

However, the Minnesota DOT also noted a few setbacks in its report as well. Carbon pollution from transportation, for example, continued to increase between 2018 and 2019 – an uptick attributed to low gas prices, increased freight traffic, people driving more miles, and more purchases of low-fuel efficiency pick-up trucks and sport utility vehicles.  In addition, the agency reported higher fuel consumption by agency fleet vehicles in 2019, mostly by its snowplow trucks due to its winter operations needs

“Transportation is the primary source of carbon pollution in Minnesota and the U.S. and MnDOT is committed to address climate impacts and to work with communities throughout the state to develop a sustainable transportation system of the future,” emphasized Tim Sexton, the agency’s assistant commissioner and chief sustainability director, in a statement. The agency added that impacts to the state’s transportation system and its response to recent events in 2020 – including the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest related to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis – may be addressed in future iterations of its sustainability report.

ETAP Podcast: Minnesota DOT’s Margaret Anderson Kelliher

In this episode of the Environmental Technical Assistance Program or ETAP podcast, host Bernie Wagenblast interviews Margaret Anderson Kelliher, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, about her state’s perspectives on environmental sustainability.

Anderson Kelliher, who serves as chair of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Committee on the Environment and Sustainability, explains on the podcast that Minnesota looks for the “triple bottom line” when evaluating sustainability: how sustainability efforts affects the health of people, how it impacts the environment, and how it impacts the economy.

To listen to this podcast episode, click here.

Pine Tree Poisoning Provides Lessons for Oregon DOT

The Oregon Department of Transportation is approaching the end of a multi-year environmental and public relations ordeal in which a seemingly routine herbicide-spraying project in a national forest poisoned 2,300 towering Ponderosa pine trees that eventually had to be cut down.

By June, the agency should be grinding down the last of the stumps left by its massive 2019 logging of herbicide-poisoned trees along U.S. 20 in the Deschutes National Forest in Central Oregon.

Photo courtesy Oregon DOT

Aside from the wood chips, what will remain are valuable environmental lessons the Oregon DOT is taking to heart.

The problem began when the Oregon DOT contracted with Jefferson County Public Works in 2013 to spray the herbicide aminocyclopyrachlor – also known as Perspective – along a 12-mile stretch of U.S. 20 to kill vegetation that could pose a fire hazard.

In 2014, U.S. Forest Service rangers noticed some trees were stressed, but no one linked it to the herbicide until the spraying was completed in 2015. By then, the damage was done and the Oregon DOT determined the trees – some of which were 36 inches in diameter – were safety hazards and had to be removed.

Environmental groups and residents criticized the agency, its contractor and the U.S. Forest Service for using the herbicide. Although a review of the decision-making process did not fully put the blame on the Oregon DOT, “at best, it wasn’t clear,” explained Joel McCarroll, Oregon DOT’s District 10 manager.

“We took full responsibility. It was not a comfortable decision, but I felt it was an easy decision,” he emphasized. “It just didn’t make sense to lay the blame off on someone else. It was just easier to go forward and get this done.”

Photo courtesy Oregon DOT

To that end, the agency held open houses for public discussion of its remediation plan because “we needed to be transparent with the public – we had more than 2,000 trees that had to come down,” McCarroll noted. “We were very clear about the criteria and the process we were using. And, people were fine. I’ve had people come unglued on me for other things at public meetings, but these crowds were respectful.”

Although Perspective was legal to use, a warning label about its use around pine trees was added before the project ended, but no one caught the change. “We overlooked a warning label, and that’s one of the process-improvement changes we’ve made,” McCarroll said.

In response to the tree killing, Oregon became the first state to prohibit the use of aminocyclopyrachlor in numerous applications on May 9, including along rights-of-way. Additionally, each Oregon DOT district now has an integrated vegetation program, and personnel within the district are cross trained to prevent a loss of institutional knowledge, McCarroll noted.

“Learn from our experience – you still have to have the expertise internally, even if you’re contracting out spraying,” he explained. “If you’re dealing with highways that are on federal lands, make sure the decision-making is clear. And it’s important to be public about your process.”

ETAP Podcast: Interview with The Ray’s Allie Kelly

The inaugural episode of the Environmental Technical Assistance Program or ETAP Podcast includes an interview with Allie Kelly executive director of The Ray – a corporate venture devoted to roadway technology testing. She talks about her group’s work with the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration as part of a “public-private-philanthropic partnership” or P4 charter to collaborate on ways to better use an 18-mile-long portion of Interstate 85 The Ray manages as a “living transportation laboratory.”

“The infrastructure changes we need to make for autonomous and connected vehicles is pretty clear,” she explained during the podcast. “Clear signage and lane markings are critical as are technologies for managing the data streams coming from connected vehicles in real-time to understand where dangerous crashes are located and how to better protect work zones, among other benefits.”

It’s about developing highway infrastructure that is cleaner, smarter, and more efficient, Kelly noted. “We’ve been working with the Georgia Department of Transportation for five years and the formal [P4] charter agreement we signed in 2019 is helping us develop larger projects, such as a group of solar panels on the highway right-of-way managed by Georgia Power that helps reduce expenditures on right-of-way maintenance.” To access more of Ray’s ETAP podcast commentary, click here.

Sustainability: The State DOT Perspective

The idea of tackling sustainability from a state department of transportation perspective can evoke as many questions as ideas: what should be done, who should do it, and how can anyone tell if it’s working?

In at least two states – Arizona and Minnesota – state DOTs have addressed sustainability issues for a few years now, but each is taking a different approach to how they’re attempting to alter the impact of traditional transportation activities on the environment.

Tim Sexton, Assistant Commissioner and Chief Sustainability Officer, MnDOT

“Climate change is happening in Minnesota, and we want to do our part,” explained Tim Sexton, assistant commissioner, and chief sustainability officer of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

A Minnesota state law – The Next Generation Energy Act – put the onus on the Minnesota DOT to lead the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote transit, biking and walking.

“There was some work done here prior to 2014, but it was not coordinated between departments,” Sexton said. And though the department lacked specific resources dedicated to the effort, “we started a high-level strategic planning committee on sustainability, and we saw it as an opportunity to be more strategic,” he added.

The committee created an initiative – called Pathways to Decarbonizing Transportation – and began working with experts to create sustainability models and held a series of meetings around Minnesota to get public feedback. Out of that exercise, the Minnesota DOT developed incentives of up to $250 in toll credits for new electric vehicle buyers and planned a $2 million clean transportation funding pilot program.

The agency also created a Sustainable Transportation Advisory Council; an 18-member group of executives from the public, private, and non-profit sectors tasked with overseeing and evaluating Minnesota’s sustainability efforts and making recommendations to the Minnesota DOT.

While Minnesota focused on the user-end of the sustainability spectrum – reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting greener transportation modes being the main efforts – Arizona directed its efforts into its core functions.

“There are a number of different approaches to sustainability,” said Steven Olmsted, Arizona DOT’s National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA assignment manager. “If you look at the material from AASHTO, it runs the gamut. We’re still adding a lot of new highways because of our growth so it made sense to look at sustainability from that point of view.”

The Arizona DOT began partnering with construction groups and industry and “really tied the effort to design engineering, construction and maintenance,” Olmsted said. “We’ve also gotten into design guidance and scoping considerations.”

He noted that many sustainability efforts can be justified from an economic standpoint, “but it still remains that you must make a qualitative business case.

“At the end of the day, we are not going to spend ten times the cost of a unit just to be sustainable,” Olmsted explained. “We’ve tried to address the social pillar of what sustainability means in a [state] DOT. At the same time, there really has to be a business case.”

In a recent report filed by the Arizona DOT on its sustainability efforts, Olmsted and his staff noted that integrating such a program inside a state DOT is “a particularly complex undertaking” and “a daunting effort.”

“It’s not for the faint of heart; I guess I’m a glutton for punishment,” Olmsted noted. “But at some point, one person or a group of persons has to decide, ‘What’s the lowest hanging fruit where we can gain some traction?’ That’s how you get started.”

Minnesota DOT’s Sexton agreed that “there’s a ton of opportunities for states to take advantage of lowering emissions and saving money,” but he said the issue goes beyond dollars and cents. “We really view this as a crisis,” Sexton emphasized. “This is a scientific issue and a moral or even an existential issue. We want our kids to enjoy the wonderful things Minnesota has to offer. There’s a culture in Minnesota that is committed to our environment. For us, it’s not a political issue.”