Building a better transportation system starts long before breaking ground

State DOTs were largely created to build highways, but they are now responsible for moving people and goods safely and efficiently across multiple modes—bike, walk, bus, trains, ferries, and cars. To do a better job of meeting all these diverse needs and provide a multimodal transportation system that supports economic growth and livable communities, changes to their policies, internal processes, and agency culture are required.

This is the third post in a short series about states that are finding success through what’s known as practical solutions, a way for transportation departments to meet changing demands and plan, design, construct, operate, and maintain context-sensitive transportation networks that work for all modes of travel. Read the first and second posts. Read the fourth post here.

Although state DOTs that were largely created to build roads have changed to reflect a modern mission to address transportation holistically, it’s hard to break out of the decade-old ruts that have led them to the continued construction of more highways and highway-like streets that are often dangerously out of place within many communities.

To better achieve their broad missions and get more bang for their buck, state DOTs need a major update to their thinking, planning & design for projects, funding, decision-making frameworks, and the metrics they use to measure success: what we call “practical solutions.” But the most crucial steps for implementing this approach happen long before funding is allocated and certainly long before a shovel ever hits the ground, in upstream areas like addressing agency culture and administration, project scoping, and public engagement. These areas may sound dry and boring but have an outsize impact on what gets built and where, how much it costs, and whether or not it helps accomplish a state’s goals.

Over the past two years, we worked with nine states—Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia—to help them better align their practices with their aspirations. Through this work we identified seven general areas that, if changed, would allow DOTs to better serve their state’s modern day needs and reach their goals. Below is a look at three of those seven area. We’ll cover the other four in two more posts to come.

Culture & administration

The first thing a new recruit at a state DOT will experience is the culture. How committed are the bosses and managers to developing a multimodal transportation system? How will their job performance be evaluated? What kind of training and support is in place?

Changing the culture of an agency has to start at the top with headquarters, district leadership, and project managers all singing from the same song sheet. A statement like “Staff are encouraged to utilize their own informed engineering judgment and innovative multimodal roadway treatments tailored to the specific context and needs of the community” (rather than just leaning unquestioningly on off-the-shelf “standard” design), sounds a lot different than, “bring projects in on-time and under-budget.”

Statements alone won’t change practice though. Following through and evaluating performance of staff based on those principles is key: how well do projects balance the needs of different users, how and when was the public engaged, do projects advance agency goals, etc.?

Ongoing training is critical for success. Saying all the right things and changing performance reviews won’t help much without training staff on how to do what is being asked of them. Staff will flounder without the appropriate training, much as state DOTs have as their mandates extended beyond building highways but their training and expertise never adjusted accordingly. And that training can’t just focus on design—it should start at the very beginning of a project with scoping.

Getting project scopes right

One of the biggest barriers to practical solutions is the practice of defining the need for a project as a specific improvement (ex. add a turn lane) instead of a problem to be solved (i.e. northbound backups at Second and Main during the afternoon rush). And when a Purpose and Need statement goes so far as to include a specific approach (add the turn lane), then all other features—sidewalks, crosswalks, pedestrian refuge islands, or bicycle facilities—become “add-ons” or “amenities” which are first to get scrapped when confronted with funding constraints. Starting with a clear definition of the problem rather than a specific improvement can make such “amenities” central components of a future project and open the door to more inexpensive solutions (like retiming traffic lights).

For example, upon reviewing one specific project scope to better define the problem at hand, the Tennessee DOT found that safety improvements like curve warnings, school speed limit signs, stop signs, and other pavements and signage improvements could be made for $85,000 instead of the $58 million road widening that was originally proposed, and achieve many of the same benefits.

Doing thorough legwork to really dig into the need behind a project during scoping takes more time and resources. But taking the time to get the scope right results in projects that are better calibrated to solve the actual problems at hand. Plus, the state can better coordinate with local partners (and the public) about the priorities for a corridor (such as emphasizing regional throughput versus local travel and economic development) which could impact the solution that’s chosen.

Doing more of this engagement upfront often reduces delays later in the process caused by local concerns, even for repair projects, where more coordination with local agencies during scoping can reduce costs for both (for example, by timing a local utility project with a roadway resurfacing project to avoid tearing up the road twice). Similarly, a better scoping process can allow states to revisit projects that have been in the funding queue for a long time to clarify the current need, potentially reducing the scale and cost of projects to finally get them funded.

Changing the way staff are evaluated (as mentioned in the previous section), providing guidance on what questions need to be answered with a scope, building multidisciplinary project teams, and requiring those teams to physically visit and navigate the area on foot or bike can all help create more effective scopes.

Improving public engagement

While state DOT leadership and staff generally understand the importance of robust community engagement, in practice, such engagement happens infrequently; it’s expensive and time consuming under current procedures that don’t recognize its value. Real community engagement requires project teams to accept that they may have to let go of their preferred solution for something that better reflects community needs but still meets the carefully crafted Purpose and Need statement (see above).

But it’s also about meeting people where they are, with the right messengers, and setting clear expectations. Are you expecting people to come out to a special meeting in the middle of a workday to hear from a DOT staffer who is just going to tell them about a project that’s already been developed? Or, is it possible to meet people at an existing community event with a local leader and ask for input? Is it clear if feedback will be driving the design process, are only small changes possible at this point, or is the engagement simply to convey information?

In a practical solutions approach, public engagement, agency culture, and project scoping all feed off of each other. Better community engagement can lead to more appropriate scopes that drive better performance at an agency that values engagement. Ongoing training can prepare staff to create scopes that define a problem instead of a project which can be used to facilitate deeper engagement with the community about their needs.

For examples and more information on each of these components of practical solutions, including information on states that are implementing some of these recommendations, read the full memos on practical solutions that were prepared for this project. We’ll be later this week and next to continue discussing the other areas of practice where state DOTs can update their practice for the modern era.

Read the fourth post in this series: “Incorrect assumptions lie at the root of every failure.” >>

The Governors’ Institute on Community Design, a program of Smart Growth America, helps state leaders address economic development, housing, transportation, and other pressing issues that relate to how communities grow and develop. Visit for more information.

The Governors’ Institute has developed the Accelerating Practical Solutions program to help transportation agencies meet changing demands on their systems by defining the transportation problem to identify the most cost-effective solution to that problem. The program aims to build internal capacity to plan, design, construct, operate, and maintain context-sensitive transportation networks that work for all modes of travel. This series was developed with the support of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Transportation.

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