New Governors, State DOT Leaders Impact Transportation Projects

Earlier this month, I named “project selection” as one of my Top 5 Transportation Issues for 2015. Just in the first month of this year, we’ve already seen a variety of developments in a number of areas that stand to influence project selection in the years ahead. New governors are already putting their stamp on project selection by reviewing projects approved by their predecessors and by nominating new (or in some cases old) leaders to head state departments of transportation. I also have updates on ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, public transportation projects, autonomous vehicles and state transportation planning processes.

Changes at the Top

The election of new governors in 2014 and recent changes in state DOT leadership are already having an effect on some key transportation projects around the country and the new faces hold the potential to dramatically reshape project selection in the years to come. Here’s a look at some of the comings and goings:

  • Alaska: State transportation commissioner Patrick Kemp resigned recently amid a disagreement with Gov. Bill Walker over state spending on major transportation projects, KTUU reported. Walker, who took office December 1, announced last month he was ordering state agencies to suspend non-obligated spending on six infrastructure projects already underway, including an access road to Juneau and the proposed Knik Arm Crossing, the AASHTO Journal reported. The governor blamed a growing budget deficit due to falling state revenues caused in part by the collapse in oil prices. Walker announced last week he plans to bring back former state DOT commissioner Marc Luiken to head the department, Alaska Dispatch News reported. Coincidentally, Luiken was asked to resign by the previous governor, Sean Parnell, in 2012. He said he’ll continue a department focus on performance measures that he emphasized in his previous stint. Luiken led the department’s creation of a performance dashboard that tracks progress on such goals as cutting traffic deaths.
  • Colorado: Gov. John Hickenlooper announced that Delaware Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt will become the next executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation next month. He replaces Don Hunt, who announced he was stepping down in November (The Denver Post had an exit interview with Hunt earlier this month). Bhatt’s career also included posts at the Federal Highway Administration and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. Of his new appointee Hickenlooper said: “His experience in disaster recovery, transportation planning and innovative project delivery will help build on the successes that Don Hunt has led to improve safety and congestion on our roadways.”
  • District of Columbia: Washington Mayor Muriel Brown named Leif Dormsjo to head the D.C. Department of Transportation. Dormsjo was a senior executive with the Maryland DOT, where he led the department’s public-private partnership program, overseeing such projects as the Seagirt Marine Terminal, the I-95 Travel Plazas and the Purple Line Light Rail project.
  • Illinois: Gov. Bruce Rauner nominated Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning Executive Director Randy Blankenhorn to become his secretary of transportation, the AASHTO Journal noted. Rauner took office earlier this month ordering a freeze to discretionary spending that included the planned $1.5 billion Illiana Expressway project. Upon signing the executive order suspending construction projects pending his review, Rauner said Illinois state government was “in a financial crisis” and that “today we start the process of putting our state back on the road to fiscal stability by reviewing agency spending, stopping contracts and grants and selling excess state property.” The Daily Herald examined how Rauner’s move will affect the state’s construction season. Rauner later announced he was giving the Illinois Tollway the greenlight to proceed with more than $1 billion worth of rebuilding and widening projects, The Chicago Tribune reported. 
  • Maryland: Gov. Larry Hogan named Pete Rahn to serve as his transportation secretary, the AASHTO Journal noted. Rahn previously headed state transportation agencies in New Mexico and Missouri and worked for the construction engineering firm HNTB since 2010. Hogan is said to favor road construction over proposed light rail projects and has promised to work to reduce tolls on Maryland’s tunnels and bridges. He called Rahn “the best highway builder in the entire country.” The aforementioned light rail projects—the Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the DC suburbs—reportedly survived the chopping block in Hogan’s proposed spending plan introduced last week. But the governor said he was still deciding whether to move forward with them. Greater Greater Washington had a piece this week on why the projects aren’t out of the woods yet and what might happen next.  
  • Massachusetts: Gov. Charlie Baker, who took office earlier this month, has appointed Stephanie Pollack to serve as Secretary of Transportation, the AASHTO Journal noted. Pollack spent the last nine years as an associate director for research at Northeastern University’s Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy in Boston. In February 2013, she appeared on our annual webinar on the states to watch in transportation funding (Massachusetts approved their funding package later that year). As Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog noted in a recent post, Pollack is a transit and equity advocate and has argued in the past for increasing the state’s gasoline tax to fund transportation, which makes her seem an unlikely choice for the Republican governor. “Just two months ago, voters repealed the automatic indexing of the gas tax to inflation, leaving MassDOT in the same cash-strapped fiscal position as many other transportation agencies,” Snyder writes. “Pollack’s boss, Governor Baker, has not only nixed the idea of a gas tax hike, he’s also against higher tolls. And meanwhile, the U.S. Olympic Committee has chosen Boston as the U.S. contender to host the 2024 games.” Of his appointee, Baker said “Pollack’s vast experience in infrastructure and policy development will help our administration to be forward-thinking as we look for more innovative ways to meet the transportation needs in every region of the commonwealth,” WBUR reported. By the way, Pollack’s predecessor at MassDOT, Richard Davey, was just appointed to lead Boston’s Olympic organizing group, The Boston Globe reported.
  • Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, who took office last week, has nominated Montgomery County Commissioner Leslie Richards to head up the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. She replaces Barry Schoch, who is staying on as a senior adviser to Wolf on transportation and infrastructure issues. Richards said her priorities will include continuing to implement transportation projects funded by the state’s 2013 funding plan. She will also begin evaluating “all of the areas that PennDOT oversees, including highways, bridges, ports, rail, freight, and getting a good assessment of where we are.”
  • Virginia: An editorial in The Virginian-Pilot had some harsh words for former Gov. Bob McDonnell and some of the transportation projects and policies he championed. “On some of the biggest initiatives of his tenure, McDonnell’s administration failed to perform reasonable due diligence, opting instead to risk taxpayer dollars by pushing toward an outcome, all while hoping necessary pieces would somehow fall miraculously into place,” the editorial said. Of the eventually canceled U.S. 460 project, the editorial says “it was as if tolls were incorporated into the … deal simply to create a public-private partnership, when the project would’ve been better built as a traditional publicly funded project. Except that the design was, officials say now, unnecessarily expensive.” The editorial points to two pieces of legislation that current Gov. Terry McAuliffe and lawmakers hope will prevent past mistakes from being repeated. HB 1886 would overhaul the state’s public-private partnership law to involve lawmakers in the selection of qualifying projects; require a certified finding that a project is in the public’s interest; and prevent an administration from spending tax dollars without limiting the risk to taxpayers. HB 1887 would require a more comprehensive annual report on the state of Virginia’s transportation network and charge the Commonwealth Transportation Board with crafting a “priority ranking system” accounting for degraded roads and bridges.  

Ride-hailing or Whatever You Call It

  • Stylebook Update: The Associated Press recently announced their preferred style when referring to services like Uber and Lyft. Rather than the inaccurate term “ride sharing,” the AP Stylebook prefers the terms “ride-hailing” or “ride-booking” services, Greater Greater Washington noted.
  • Big Data: Uber has announced a deal with the city of Boston to provide the city with quarterly reports on the amount of time spent in their cars, the zip codes traveled in, and the dates and times of the trips, Mashable reported. The ride-hailing company says the shared data will be completely anonymous. It’s expected to help Boston and perhaps other cities in the future with traffic planning, congestion reduction and measuring the impact of disasters and other events on city transportation.
  • Filling a Gap: The Washington Post’s Wonkblog looks at a recent U.C.-Berkeley study that examines the behavior and preferences of users of Uber, Lyft and Sidecar in San Francisco. The study finds that the smartphone-enabled ride services became so popular so quickly largely because they filled a gap in the urban transportation market by offering more predictability than taxis, faster travel than transit and fewer hassles than personal cars.
  • Following Uber’s Lead: UPS says it could implement “surge pricing” next holiday season akin to Uber, which hikes fares as demand soars, Bloomberg reported.

Autonomous Vehicles

  • Michigan: A 32-acre site on the University of Michigan’s North Campus in Ann Arbor will become a testing site for connected and driverless cars that will simulate a cityscape when it opens later this year, the Associated Press reported. The facility, dubbed “M City,” was built in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Transportation and private industry. “M City will allow us to rigorously test new approaches in a safe, controlled and realistic environment before we implement them on actual streets,” said Peter Sweatman, director of the university’s Mobility Transformation Center. M City will incorporate a network of roads with up to five lanes, intersections, roundabouts, roadway markings, traffic signs, signals, sidewalks, bus facilities, benches, fake buildings, streetlights, parked cars and other obstacles.
  • On the Way: Tech Crunch says “Autonomous Cars Are Closer Than You Think.”
  • Dutch Courage: Arguing the technology could greatly reduce traffic congestion and improve road safety, the Dutch government last week approved large-scale testing of autonomous cars and trucks on public roads, CTV News reported.
  • Impact for Auto Manufacturing: Engineering.com takes a look at the potential implications of self-driving vehicles for the auto manufacturing industry in a recent piece.
  • Challenges and Opportunities: The State Smart Transportation Initiative notes that a large number of papers presented during this month’s Transportation Research Board meeting in Washington highlighted the opportunities and challenges associated with autonomous vehicles and the enormous changes that may be on the way for state DOTs, metropolitan planning organizations and policy makers.
  • Congestion: The Atlantic CityLab reported on a simulation study that showed traffic congestion may be a byproduct of a driverless car future, especially if commuters want a comfortable riding experience akin to riding the train.
  • Impact for States and Localities: Governing magazine looks at “7 Ways Self-Driving Cars Could Impact States and Localities.”
  • Confounding Questions: The Washington Post’s Wonkblog has “5 confounding questions that hold the key to the future of driverless cars.” 

Public Transportation

  • District of Columbia: Despite an incident on the Metro a couple of weeks ago that claimed a woman’s life, Aaron Wiener writes in The Washington Post that now is not the time for area commuters to abandon the subway system. “Metro has a reputation for shoddy service and a history of not learning from its mistakes, including with this incident, apparently caused by an ‘electrical arcing event’ of the sort that has routinely plagued the system of late,” he writes. “Why should we reward such a poorly run enterprise with our business, or place our lives in the hands of a system we can’t trust? Understandable though it may be, this is exactly the wrong way to respond to the latest tragedy. If we really want to fix what’s broken with Metro, we should start riding it more, not less.” Among Wiener’s reasons: a planned expansion of the system to alleviate overcrowding, enhance connectivity and spur development that is predicated on rising demand. “If demand drops, so will the impetus for any expansion,” Wiener writes. “We’ll be stuck with the same limited network for decades to come.”
  • Florida: Community leaders in Miami are now taking a serious look at how to fund transit projects to improve public transportation, The Miami Herald reported. A recent transportation summit included talk of public-private partnerships. Speakers included Jeffrey Ensor of the Maryland Transit Administration and Phil Washington from the Denver Regional Transportation District.    
  • Georgia: ATL Urbanist this week reflected on whether Atlanta’s streetcar will bring needed investment: “One of the biggest misunderstandings about the Atlanta Streetcar is its very purpose. This is not entirely a transportation device—it is, to a large degree, a development tool that hopes to spur construction and renovation within the many blighted, underused properties through which it runs. This dual aspect of the streetcar has proven to be a difficult sell for many and it is a common point of debate for similar transit projects throughout the U.S.” The author of the piece sees promise in several proposed new developments along the line.
  • Minnesota: House Speaker Kurt Daudt said recently that he and his fellow Republicans won’t provide state funding for a light rail line between Eden Prairie and Minneapolis, MPR News reported. Daudt said the 16-mile, $1.6 billion project (including the state’s share of $120 million) is not a priority for House Republicans. “We are not interested in moving forward on the Southwest light rail project,” he said. “I think we need to get real with our priorities in Minnesota on how we spend our transportation dollars. Our plan is to spend them on roads and bridges.”
  • New York: Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic had a recent piece critiquing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed AirTrain, a $450 million project that would connect LaGuardia Airport to the New York subway system and Long Island Rail Road. “Transit travel times from LaGuardia to destinations throughout New York City … would be longer for passengers using the AirTrain than for passengers using existing transit services already offered by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority,” Freemark wrote. “The governor’s proposal and reasonable alternatives would do little to improve transit to LaGuardia. Very expensive alternatives, such as an express subway from Grand Central, would save significant time, but those are far more expensive than anyone in office appears willing to commit to at the moment.”
  • Wisconsin: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett spoke with The Shepherd Express recently about his support for the city’s long-in-the-works downtown streetcar project. “I’m betting on the future of this city and betting on the young people to come and to stay,” Barrett told the newspaper. A final vote on the project by the Milwaukee Common Council was pushed back to February 10.
  • Streetcars vs. Light Rail: Greater Greater Washington has a handy guide on “How to tell the difference between streetcars and light rail.”

Vehicle Miles Traveled

  • Changing Driving Trends: A recent study by University of Connecticut researchers looked at state-level driving and economic patterns from 1980 to 2011 and determined that in many states VMT peaked much earlier than the national trends showed, the State Smart Transportation Initiative noted.

Transportation Planning

  • Missouri: The Missouri Department of Transportation said recently it will focus its resources on just a fraction of the state’s 34,000-mile state highway system, Roads & Bridges magazine reported. With the department’s budget expected to fall to $325 million by 2017, the “325 system” will focus on 8,000 miles of primary roads that connect larger cities throughout the state. The other 26,000 miles will receive only limited routine maintenance. In announcing the plan, MoDOT Director Dave Nichols said: "We need at least $485 million to maintain roads and bridges in the condition they are today, so facing a $325 million budget means making some tough choices. In addition, Missouri won't be able to match federal funds in 2017, which provides a $4 to $1 investment. That revenue will be lost to other states. We won't be able to provide the same level of service as we have in the past. This is not a course of action we want to take, but it's one that insufficient funding forces us to take."
  • Oregon: The Oregon Department of Transportation has issued “State of the System,” a biennial report that provides information on the state’s transportation network and progress in implementing the Oregon Transportation Plan. The report identifies a number of major trends and issues impacting state agencies, counties, cities and other transportation providers across Oregon. Among them: an economy on the uptick, an aging infrastructure, an aging and increasing population, fluctuating numbers on vehicle miles traveled, and concerns about climate change and the environment.
  • Utah: A newly proposed quadrennial update of transportation plans for the Salt Lake region includes an emphasis on new bike paths, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. The Wasatch Front Regional Council blueprint also emphasizes maintaining and improving the efficiency of existing highways instead of adding new ones and expanding bus routes and service hours rather than building new light rail or streetcar lines.
  • Virginia: State transportation officials are considering ways to ease traffic congestion on Interstate 66 and could require solo drivers inside the Capital Beltway to pay tolls on I-66 as early as 2017, the Associated Press reported. The Washington Post reported on that and some other proposed traffic changes as well.
  • Washington: The Washington State Transportation Commission last week submitted to Gov. Jay Inslee its 20-year vision for the state’s transportation system. The commission concludes “Rather than attempt to predict and plan for a specific future, Washington needs to implement policies and strategies that address urgent needs while simultaneously preparing for a range of possible long-term future outcomes.” Decision makers need to find secure, sustainable, long-term sources of funding for transportation; maintain reliable, efficient freight movement; and establish a more clearly defined role for the state in multimodal transportation, the document said. It also outlines key findings on preservation and maintenance, safety, freight mobility, public transportation, accountability and transparency and public health.
  • Transportation & Public Health: A Portland State University research team found that despite the many connections between transportation and public health, many agencies that do long-range transportation planning have yet to completely consider effects on health.
  • Balancing Growth: A report prepared for the Ohio Department of Transportation’s Office of Statewide Planning & Research looks at “The Value of Balanced Growth for Transportation.” It includes tables detailing balanced growth-type policies and programs around the country. 

Miscellaneous

  • Oregon/Washington: Bloomberg Businessweek examines why the Columbia River Crossing project was scuttled in a recent piece.
  • State of the Union: In a recent post for The Atlantic CityLab, author Anthony Flint uses the President’s State of the Union last week as a jumping off point to discuss “being smarter about infrastructure investments, making sure they get the most bang for the buck on a regional basis, and contribute to long-range sustainability and resilience.” Flint writes that “the days of pork should be over. No more bridges to nowhere, and frankly, repaving long stretches of interstate highway in Vermont or Montana. Spending money more precisely and more wisely requires a cold-eyed and targeted protocol. That’s not going to be easy; there is an argument to be made that such projects shouldn’t and can’t be totally depoliticized.”
  • Impact of Cheap Gas: The International Business Times took a look recently at the potential impact of falling gas prices on millennials, the kinds of cars they choose to buy and where they choose to live.