Five state department of transportation chief executives discussed the ongoing work to create a “national vision” for the future of the U.S. transportation system during a special roundtable session at the 2023 Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting.
[Above photo by AASHTO]
Dr. Shawn Wilson (above) – secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development – moderated that roundtable discussion. He is also the immediate past president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and is now serving as TRB’s chair of its 2023 executive committee.
That session – formally entitled “Development of a National Vision for the Future of Transportation” – featured four other state DOT chief executives: Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation; Nicole Majeski, secretary of the Delaware Department of Transportation; Everett Lott, director of the District Department of Transportation for Washington, D.C.; and Eileen Vélez-Vega, secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Transportation and Public Works.
“Having a vision is important, but we need you, the localities, to help us make it successful,” explained Braceras. “That is true with this national vision before us now. We need to take this to the local communities we serve to see how it fits. Too often we sit back and let projects develop piece by piece. We need to be the people that bring people together – to facilitate dialog and see what people want their communities to like and how transportation can help them achieve those goals.”
“The important thing is to make connections between transportation and land use – to look at it holistically – so we figure out the best ways to connect people to goods and services,” Majeski said.
“In Delaware, transportation is at the heart of economic development now – for businesses, how to get employees to work, to home, to school, etc. It is also about incorporating a multimodal vision – bringing transit, pedestrians, bicycling, and motor vehicles all together. This really required a mindset shift in how we are developing and designing our transportation projects,” she noted.
While it is important to have an overarching national transportation vision, Majeski said that vision must be filtered down through the eyes of the people who live in local communicates across the country.
“That vision may end up looking very different in each state or county. But that is why you [the state DOT] really need to be part of a broader conversation,” she stressed. “Transportation means different things to different groups of people. Our role is to provide the forum to bring everyone together to figure that out.”
Lott explained that vision is also about providing more transportation options to people as well. “They need to choose how to get to work, to worship, to shop, and back home,” he said. “That means engaging regularly with residents and businesses – we might not get it right the first time, but we keep working at it.”
Lott added that often means going back to re-tool and re-figure transportation projects out based on feedback from community engagement. “We need to make sure there are various options of transportation to get around safely – whether by walking, biking, driving, or taking the bus; this is where the discussion has to take place.”
Vélez-Vega said that becomes complicated in the case of an island territory like Puerto Rico, where the impact of hurricanes and earthquakes complicate the transportation vision.
“We have 78 municipalities, and two of them are islands on the eastern side of Puerto Rico,” she explained. “So our transportation system is like the human circulatory system – it is our lifeline. For many years, we operated in a detached way from those municipalities. Now we are more closely connecting with them to better identify their needs.”
That effort has been complicated by a three year run of hurricanes and earthquakes that has forced her agency to work in “recovery mode” most of the time. “That’s why resiliency in construction design is so very important to us, for we will always face natural disasters like hurricanes.”
The other key to Puerto Rico’s take on a “national vision” for transportation is infrastructure maintenance. “It is not a sexy topic and is even less sexy when roads are in disrepair. But re-establishing regular road maintenance is critical for us. It’s about getting back to the basics.”
It’s also about embedding such practices more deeply into the overall planning process for large and small communities alike, Braceras stressed.
“For years, we sat at the back-end of land use decisions,” he said. “Now when communities develop land use scenarios, we are developing transportation systems for them and the implications thereof. We are having those conversations before the master plans are completed – conversations about how communities want to grow. That sets ourselves up for more environmental friendly, safe, and community-centric transportation decisions going forward.”