Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How Every DOT Ought to be Thinking

CalTrans, the equivalent of TxDOT that you may remember from such entertaining stories as why they couldn't figure out how their productions of gridlock, doom, and pestilence never besieged San Francisco when the Central Artery wasn't replaced by another highway, may very well now be the nation's most progressive state transpo authority.

Not only have they just completely scrapped the disastrous Level of Service as a metric (engineer's A = Economist's F, and vice versa), but they now have an entirely new constitution.  A memo detailing their sweeping top down change in protocol (my highlights):

"Adopting a new mission, vision and goals is a critical step toward aligning Caltrans with state transportation planning and policy goals and better serving all Californians," said Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty. "This key change helps focus everyone at Caltrans on improved department performance, employee accountability and communications. The next step will be to set specific performance metrics to communicate honestly and transparently about our progress in meeting our goals."
In coordination with the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA), and on the heels of an external review that called for bold reforms and a more modern department, Caltrans crafted a new mission and vision that is fully consistent with California's planning and policy objectives. Caltrans' old mission was to "improve mobility," which did not capture state efforts to clean up the environment, improve quality of life and strengthen California's economy:
MISSION: Provide a safe, sustainable, integrated and efficient transportation system to enhance California's economy and livabilityVISION: A performance-driven, transparent and accountable organization that values its people, resources and partners, and meets new challenges through leadership, innovation and teamwork 
"Caltrans is embracing reform and transforming into a modern transportation agency, equipped to handle today's challenges and those of tomorrow," said CalSTA Secretary Brian P. Kelly in a recent letter notifying the California State Legislature of the new mission at Caltrans. "Next, we will develop new performance measures, which will objectively measure progress toward achieving our goal of transforming into the transportation department we envision for the future."  
In order to achieve this mission and vision and give Californians the most efficient transportation system possible, Caltrans also laid out five new goals:
  • SAFETY AND HEALTH: Provide a safe transportation system for workers and users, and promote health through active transportation and reduced pollution in communities.
  • STEWARDSHIP AND EFFICIENCY: Money counts. Responsibly manage California's transportation-related assets. 
  • SUSTAINABILITY, LIVABILITY AND ECONOMY: Make long-lasting, smart mobility decisions that improve the environment, support a vibrant economy, and build communities, not sprawl
  • SYSTEM PERFORMANCE: Utilize leadership, collaboration and strategic partnerships to develop an integrated transportation system that provides reliable and accessible mobility for travelers.
  • ORGANIZATIONAL EXCELLENCE: Be a national leader in delivering quality service through excellent employee performance, public communication, and accountability.
Adopting a new mission, vision and goals for Caltrans concludes the department's implementation of four "early action" recommendations made by the State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI) in January, when it called for bold reform and a more modern department:
  1. Develop a new mission consistent with state planning and policy goals;
  1. Organize teams to develop implementation plans;
  1. Work toward successful implementation of SB 743; and
  1. Modernize state transportation design guidance.
Caltrans will now work with the CalSTA to develop new performance measures, which will objectively measure progress toward achieving state goals.

Implicit in the last highlight is the admission of the state agency's culpability in building sprawl.  Land can't be developed as sprawl if there is no car-dependent infrastructure out to reach it.  In other words, it's not necessarily that sprawl is the end result of market forces, and informed choice (as we know even if land costs are cheaper in sprawl, cost of living is actually more expensive when all else is factored), but rather that the market is tilted by the DOT's finger on the scale effectively subsidizing bad behavior and more cost on both the public and private sector.

I should also note that any state DOT can make for an easy target, particularly when it comes to the current debt they're running up or the unmitigated disaster of the communities that have been negatively effected (or are dying and they don't even know it yet).

[temporarily puts on ANewDallas hat] We have only heard encouraging things from TxDOT recently.  Bill Hale, is now head of all metro divisions, has recently said, 1) "highways were never intended to go through the middle of cities.  It was the local politicians who wanted them."  This is true.  It's a critical statement which coincides with what else he has said specifically regarding issues like 345, 2) "We're here to do what the local city wants."  

But with limited resources and increasing debt, somebody also has to be the adult in the room, both then and now, when local politicians come clamoring for new highways with the false assumption that it will bring economic development or reduce congestion.  Ideally, that would be those that control the purse strings, but it also needs to be the local politicians taking on responsibility for educating themselves on how transportation is integral with city function, value, quality of life, and economic development.