How to build a better state DOT, the digest

State departments of transportation (DOTs) direct most of the transportation spending in the United States but they’re often focused on building highways and are ill-equipped to address the far more diverse mix of challenges they’re tasked with solving today. In a six-part series, we examined how we got here, what state DOTs need to change, and how one state is putting its intentions into practice.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve taken a deep dive into how current practices and policies at state departments of transportation (DOTs) lead to the construction of huge, expensive road projects (i.e. highways) as the ‘solution’ to almost every transportation problem. Big, over-engineered road projects waste precious funds, generate more driving and more pollution, and prioritize high-speed vehicle travel over the safety of every other road user.

Through our work directly with state DOTs over the last two years we know that some states are trying to change their practices to better reflect today’s realities: addressing climate change, dealing with shrinking funding sources, and new transportation options, for example. While state DOTs were created as highway agencies a century ago, their modern day missions are multimodal. Their policies and practices need to adapt.

With a ‘practical solutions’ approach, state DOTs can do just that, bringing their policies and practices into line with broader state goals around health & safety, equity, sustainability, and economic opportunity. We started our series on practical solutions with two posts from Transportation for America Director Beth Osborne, who sets the stage by looking at the big picture.

  1. Don’t hate the state (DOT): They’re just solving the wrong problem: How did state DOTs get to where we are today and why should we bother trying to fix such agencies instead of just throwing out the whole system and starting over?
  2. How a singular focus on speed leads state DOTs to overspend and overbuild: We cover four of the most frequent struggles we’ve heard from practitioners during our work with state DOTs, and as the title suggests, they mostly have to do with a focus on allowing cars to always travel fast.

With the background taken care of we walked through seven different areas that state DOTs need to address to save money, accomplish their full missions, and actually create a transportation system that meets the needs of citizens in this century. These three posts summarize a series of more technical white papers that we developed as a result of our work with state DOTs.

  1.  Building a better transportation system starts long before breaking ground: In this post we cover changes to DOT culture & administration, project scoping, and public engagement. Changes in these “upstream” practices can pay big dividends downstream as projects get closer to fruition.
  2. “Incorrect assumptions lie at the root of every failure”: State DOTs design and fund projects based on a set of assumptions that are often taken for granted. But it’s not the 1940s anymore; states need to re-evaluate their use of level-of-service and other design assumptions.
  3. If that road feels out of place, that’s probably because it is: States can build transportation networks that match the surrounding context and land use (instead of a one-highway-fits-all approach) and align their funding decisions with overall agency goals, even if that’s not the norm today.

And finally, we wrapped up the series with a concrete look at how one state is augmenting some of its practices. While there are a handful of states that are on the forefront of this work—and we cite many of them in our white papers—Tennessee provides a helpful illustration of how states are taking their mission to build a safer, more equitable, and more multimodal transportation system to heart.

  1. How Tennessee DOT is turning Complete Streets policy into practice: TDOT was
    the first of nine DOTs we engaged during this two-year long project working directly with states on practical solutions. Since then, they have taken (and continue to take) steps to update practices across the department to make roads safer for everyone.

For more information on practical solutions, download the white papers or reach out to us about providing assistance in your state.

DOT Innovation Technical assistance Transportation