Six state DOTS selected to receive hands-on assistance

We are proud to announce that six state departments of transportation will receive free technical assistance designed to develop flexible ways to meet their users’ needs with practical solutions that cost less to design, build and maintain.

State departments of transportation face increased demands on both their networks and their budgets. Our Accelerating Practical Solutions Program will work with six competitively selected states to help them make investments in transportation that put people first and don’t break the bank:

  • Delaware
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana
  • New Hampshire
  • North Dakota
  • Virginia

Congratulations to these six states. Learn more about what the states we’ll be working with hope to achieve:

Iowa is committed to providing a transportation system that gets you there safely, efficiently and conveniently. We believe the principles taught in the Smart Growth America’s Accelerating Practical Solutions workshop will help us better utilize flexibility and innovation to achieve that goal.”

“The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development looks forward to finding additional ways to work with other federal, state, and local government agencies and engage the public to come up with transportation solutions that enhance communities and serve all users of the transportation system,” said Dr. Eric Kalivoda, Deputy Secretary of LADOTD.

“The workshop will be especially timely as the New Hampshire Department of Transportation develops new pedestrian and bicycle design criteria that considers safety and access for all modes of travel. The department extends a warm welcome to the Governors’ Institute on Community Design.”

North Dakota seeks to enhance integrated decisions about transportation and land use that meet the needs of all roadway users, and support healthy, vibrant, and economically strong communities.”

“We are honored to be selected for Smart Growth America’s Accelerating Practical Solutions workshop and look forward to learning how to expand and improve Virginia‘s efforts to plan and deliver efficient and affordable solutions to transportation challenges throughout the state.”

Technical assistance will also be awarded to the Delaware Department of Transportation as they work with the University of Delaware on improving access for people of all abilities.

Our expert staff will bring together DOT staff with MPOs, consultants, local governments, advocacy groups, transit agencies, and others for a technical assistance workshop in each state. We’ll explore a range of topics, such as balancing the needs of all roadway users in a variety of contexts, how to take advantage of existing flexibility in design, integrating transportation and land use decision-making, right-sizing projects, and how to make the organizational and cultural changes required to implement practical design.

Interested in this bringing this work to your state? Contact us to learn more about bringing a Practical Solutions workshop to your community >>

Political will, leadership crucial to building great communities

From left: former Maryland Governor and President of the Governors' Institute, Parris Glendening; former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, and former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge at the Governors' Institute launch event.

Great neighborhoods, strong local economies and balanced budgets don’t happen by chance. It takes political leadership and resilience to achieve those goals – political leadership that is sometimes hard to come by.

“Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die to get there,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge during a conversation between past and current state leaders at the National Press Club today. The Governors’ Institute on Community Design hosted the event, which kicked off newly announced support for the Institute from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

That reluctance to stick one’s neck out can have a negative impact on states and local communities, explained former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who co-chairs the Institute with former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening. Instead of planning for long-term, sustainable economic growth that meets a wide range of goals, it’s easy for elected officials to lapse into short-term, often politically motivated decisions.

“People have come up with this mindset that it’s an either or [between jobs and smart, long-term thinking], and we have to break that,” said Whitman, noting the pressure on state and local leaders to show immediate results.

She emphasized the need for state and local leaders to think tactically and show more resolve, a point Ridge hammered home when he likened current federal and state budget deficit reduction battles to a “kabuki dance” between political parties.

Many of the decisions needed today are bound to be unpopular, because the country needs both cuts to costly services as well as new revenue creation sources to fund important infrastructure upgrades and investments, Ridge said. Drawing attention to the need for increased leadership at all levels of government is therefore vital, as are more transparent and proactive efforts to inform the public about the realities of municipal costs.

“We almost need a public education campaign,” Ridge said about the cost of updating America’s infrastructure systems and investing in the things that will lead to long-term growth. “You flip on a light, you don’t think about [the cost]. You turn the water on, you don’t think about it.”

What that means for the country’s towns and cities is significant, as leaders shy away from making investments or bold policy changes to attract voters. Politicians on both sides of the aisle might recognize the need for smarter decision-making in light of changing market trends toward walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and evolving population demographics, but it can be difficult to roll out reforms.

Current governors Martin O’Malley of Maryland and Beverly Perdue of North Carolina addressed that point, noting that leaders must persevere through criticism while simultaneously showing how new strategies will benefit communities over the long-haul.

“To continue to have a state that is growing as quickly as our state is growing, and to continue to have the kind of economic development we want,” Perdue said, “you need revenue … not just in North Carolina, but in any state.”

“All the great things you say during the campaign … all the, ‘I can fix it all with a magic wand,’” she said, “If you want to focus on the future, you have to make tough decisions and you can’t just stick your finger in the wind and decide which way the public is going.”

The Institute, established in 2005 and currently administered by Smart Growth America, aims to shore up political leadership and lend assistance to governors looking to promote economic development and make a better use of taxpayer dollars. Glendening said the three federal agencies’ funding support will enhance the Institute’s ability to provide technical assistance and counsel across the country.

“It’s very clear that the innovation is at the local and state level, and it’s important for us to recognize this at the federal level,” said U.S. Transportation Deputy Secretary John Porcari.

For leaders who want to address state concerns in a more comprehensive, strategic and financially sustainable way, the Institute is at governors’ disposal, Glendening said.

“We see our job in the Obama Administration as doing some of the downfield blocking,” Porcari added.

Driving up costs: Reconsidering school sites in an era of unpredictable gas prices

A long line of schoolbuses parked in Millburn, Illinois.

Fuel costs are rising rapidly, and individual drivers aren’t the only ones feeling the pain. School transportation systems around the country are struggling to adjust to cost increases. In a survey of school districts conducted last month, almost 76 percent of transportation directors report that rising fuel costs are affecting operations.

Unfortunately, in the past few decades many school districts have – literally – built gas price vulnerability into the system, often influenced by shortsighted state standards for school construction and renovation. For example, many states require schools to be built on excessively large lots to accommodate fields and parking.

As a result, more and more schools are built on the outskirts of communities, far away from the students they serve. While 87 percent of students lived within one mile of school in 1969, that number had dropped to 21 percent by 2001. Even when students live within walking distance, roads are often too hazardous for walking to be a safe option.

The alternative? Lots of buses and automobiles, which means lots (and increasing amounts) of money spent on gasoline and maintenance.

Some states, however, are leading the way with policies to encourage a return to community-centered schools located within walking distance of as many student homes and community amenities (such as parks and libraries) as possible.

For example, explains the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority revised school site recommendations in 2009. The State shifted away from recommending a specific acreage and now asks that districts submit information on the desired learning environment when they apply for state school construction funding. Other states that have eliminated minimum acreage requirements include South Carolina (2003), Rhode Island (2005) and Minnesota (2009).

In 2010, New Hampshire’s legislature passed a law requiring school construction or renovation plans to comply with the State’s statutorily adopted principles of smart growth and its comprehensive plan. It also “limits additional land acquisition in school renovation projects to only that which is necessary to ensure the safe flow of traffic.”

Because of rising fuel costs, school districts are cutting field trips, reallocating general fund dollars, and reducing repair funding to make ends meet. Twenty-two percent of districts have reduced bus services.

Gas prices will continue to fluctuate, and these short-term stopgaps won’t provide long-term sustainability. As one part of the solution, state government can help make sure more schools are located in places that minimize transportation costs – and maximize the number of dollars available for student education and enrichment.

For more state policy recommendations to encourage community-centered schools, see Policies That Work: A Governors’ Guide to Growth and Development.

Smart investment helps states to reinvent economies

Smart state transportation investments can help reinvigorate economies. (Image Credit: EPA Smart Growth)

A multi-disciplinary panel at the Brookings Institution on February 25, 2011 called for states to invest in infrastructure to reinvent their economies. Bruce Katz, Vice President and Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, emphasized the states’ critical role as investors in education, innovation and infrastructure and as the “laboratories of democracy.” State and local governments are the primary investors in the cornerstones of economic growth, accounting for 80% of public spending on K-12 education and 74% of spending on both higher education and infrastructure.

Panelists Governor Ed Rendell (PA) and Mike Finney, CEO of Michigan Economic Development Corporation, emphasized the need for governors to get their own houses in order to effectively coordinate and focus investment. “Government that doesn’t invest in its own growth will wither and die.” Pennsylvania and Michigan each established an economic supra-cabinet to coordinate the efforts of the various agencies devoted to the development of the economy, transportation, workforce and communities. Through coordination and investment, Pennsylvania ranked 11th in the nation for job growth in 2010.

On transportation spending, Matt Kahn, Professor of Economics at UCLA, explained the need to “Fix it First, Expand it Second, Reward it Third – A New Strategy for America’s Highways.” Tyler Duvall, Associate Principal at McKinsey and Company, and Robert Puentes, Senior Fellow at Brookings, cited the need for states to upgrade their tool-kits to meet investment challenges by, for example, incorporating cost/benefit analysis into decision-making processes, implementing asset-pricing, and enacting state legislation to enable public/private partnerships. He observed that “government will help those who help themselves, like going directly to the voters and not waiting for Federal funds or an increase in gas tax.”

The Governors’ Institute on Community Design is developing state workshops to: prioritize transportation spending, develop strategic approaches to state economic development, channel investment to infrastructure-rich redevelopment areas and adopt new design approaches for communities hit hard by foreclosures and vacancies. States will need these and other sound strategic and programmatic approaches to fulfill their destiny as laboratories of democracy and effective stewards of infrastructure funds.

See also: “New report from Brookings Institution advocates for road repair and maintenance” (Smart Growth America)