Improved community outreach pays off for Tennessee Department of Transportation

Many state DOTs select transportation projects without much coordination with their local jurisdictions. Recently officials in Tennessee decided to do better. Now, key officials from the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) have reinvented how the department interacts with local communities to create better outcomes for projects across the state while saving taxpayer money at the same time.

In our April profile of TDOT Commissioner John Schroer, we explained how Schroer initiated a “top to bottom” review of the department. Part of Schroer’s vision for TDOT is for state planners to work more proactively with local communities in the early planning and design phases of transportation projects. Schroer then created a new team tasked with changing the way TDOT plans, designs and funds transportation projects across the state.

The figure leading this charge for TDOT is Toks Omishakin, Deputy Commissioner of Environment and Planning. In 2011, Schroer appointed Omishakin as Assistant Commissioner with the aim of better coordinating TDOT’s long-range planning and project management. A planner by trade with a degree in Urban and Regional Planning and previous roles with the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Omishakin is rethinking TDOT’s approach to community relations and transforming how TDOT plans and consults with local governments across the state.

Omishakin’s purview as Assistant Commissioner includes the project planning, long-range planning, multimodal transportation resources and environmental divisions. Having someone with a planning background in this role is a priority for TDOT to help ensure a balance between individual project execution and longer term planning principles like land use impact, environmental concerns and finances.

“We’ve made it part of our core business: to listen to communities and not force things that the state wants to get done,” says Omishakin. “It’s at the forefront of what we do on a daily basis. Before we build projects, we are going to make sure communities are OK with them.”

“The community was making a big push, saying, we want our state department of transportation to listen. So we’ve decided any project we move forward is going to be what the community wants and needs.”

Omishakin explains that TDOT staff proactively seek to make presentations and answer questions about upcoming projects at existing community meetings (like Kiwanis and Rotary clubs) rather than scheduling a separate meeting hosted by TDOT, which might be harder to promote.

TDOT also implemented a new tool on their website to make interaction with department planners easier for local communities. The ‘Book-A-Planner’ feature is an online form local officials can fill out to request a TDOT official from the Community Relations division to speak at a community meeting about a particular project or concern.

Another key figure within TDOT leading the coordination of this outreach effort across the state is Tanisha Hall, Director of Long Range Planning for the department. Hall has over 14 years of experience in urban planning, specializing in transportation planning and research. In 2012, with the support of Omishakin and Commissioner Schroer, Hall established the Office of Community Transportation (OCT), which aims to better coordinate land use and transportation decisions by strengthening outreach to local communities.

“We work together with communities to identify their long-term goals, and then provide solid, data-driven resources to ensure we make the best transportation investments,” says Hall. “Basically, if you work with the department on the front-end, we can potentially save your community some heartache on the back end.” As an example, Hall points to TDOT’s new involvement in school siting, in which OCT planners offer advice on transportation cost implications to communities building new schools.

One way that the OCT is already helping local communities realize their vision while also saving taxpayer money is through the concept of ‘right-sizing’ state projects. Right-sizing means that transportation projects are tailored to maximize return on investment — to have the lowest cost for the biggest benefit. In 2012, TDOT worked with Smart Growth America define right-sizing opportunities and began to audit the existing list of proposed projects. Through this review, the department is eliminating projects that are no longer needed, and right-sizing projects that can provide good outcomes at a significantly lower cost. TDOT planners found that many transportation projects could get 80-90 percent of the outcome needed with an improvement to the network that cost up to 10 percent of the initial proposal.

As we explained in April, TDOT found a cost savings of over $171 million through right-sizing the scope of work in the first five projects examined across the state. In one project alone in Jackson County, TDOT was able to reduce the overall cost from an estimated $65 million to only $340,000 while still achieving the same safety and efficiency outcomes.

But Hall’s office tries to become involved with communities before the right-sized project is designed and built. “The right-sized projects are sometimes in the backlog of already-planned projects,” said Hall. “We are the “pre-rightsizers — working with the community early on in the planning process to help them realize their vision with the most effective solutions possible.”

Another of Hall’s major successes has been the creation of the Multi-Modal Advisory Committee, a Rockefeller Foundation–funded coalition of transportation professionals and community members from across Tennessee working to develop multi-modal transportation strategies for TDOT’s outreach and planning use. Transportation for America, a program of Smart Growth America, worked closely with TDOT and SGA coalition partner Cumberland Region Tomorrow in the creation of the committee.